Disordered Eating: 3 C's
My take on a few common components of disordered eating behaviours
As explained here, 'disordered eating' can mean a lot of things, caused by a lot of factors. Yet, after connecting with countless athletes with RED-S over the years, it seems many share similar experiences when it comes to disordered eating. I've summarised just a few factors that contributed to my case below, but it should go without saying that you may be experiencing entirely different things as a result of entirely different circumstances. You could be in the early stages of some of these thought processes. You may not be experiencing any of them at all. Or, you might have been impacted by them to a greater degree than myself. Whatever the case may be, I hope these observations encourage you to consider the factors at play in your own situation.
My disordered eating behaviours began when I fell into the trap of believing I needed to achieve a certain body type to succeed. I saw the slim, sculpted figures of other athletes 5 years my senior and I wanted what they had. I failed to understand the time and training progression it would’ve taken to achieve their body composition, or the hormonal changes they would’ve gone through over several years to get there. I simply thought that if I wanted to compete with them, I needed to look like them too.
I also compared myself to underweight athletes I competed against, deeming those ahead of me to be more successful because they were, well, ahead of me. I didn’t stop to contemplate whether they were healthy or whether their weight was sustainable. I simply narrowed my focus to two simple factors: a) they were faster and b) they were lighter.
Most dangerously of all, I compared myself to unhealthy influences around me. Whilst living abroad on an athletics scholarship, I shared a house with two successful senior teammates. Both ticked the faster-and-lighter-than-me boxes and unbeknown to me, both had full blown eating disorders. To my 19 year old mind, it made sense that their disciplined diets and commitment to 'clean eating' played a part in their success. I made an uneducated assumption that if I could just eat a little less like greedy-old-me and a little more like them, I would reap the same ‘rewards’. So, without having enough confidence in my own judgement of what was sensible nutrition or adequate recovery, I allowed myself to be influenced by theirs.
What I believed:
- Lighter = faster/skinny = successful
- Real athletes make sacrifices. I need to do the same.
- My competitors look like X. I must look like X.
What I wish I knew:
Human beings have an inherent drive to assess the correctness of their actions and abilities based upon comparisons with others. Athletes face unique pressures and stressors in training and competition that exacerbates both the likelihood of drawing comparisons and the harmful effect of doing so. Yes, perhaps the people you look up to in sport do happen to look light and lean. Yes, maybe this does play a part in their success, but equally, lighter and leaner does not equal faster if it's unsustainable and unhealthy for you. What made you a good athlete in the first place is the body and mind you already possess. What will make you the best athlete you can be is learning how to work with it, not against it.
If you’re not already familiar with the concept of ‘clean eating’ (and something tells me you might be), then it’s a tricky one to define. To some, it’s a term used to describe eating more veg, whole grains, natural produce, and less food containing refined sugar, transfats or preservatives. To others, it involves eliminating whole food groups like dairy, avoiding animal products or steering clear of gluten, soy and even carbs. To my university running team, it simply surrounded a joint effort to ‘cut out cr*p’ and eat ‘healthily’ in the lead up to competition season.
In principle, it sounds like a harmless, even helpful, concept for athletes looking to maximise their health for performance and achieving optimal body composition. For many of us, every day is a chance to be the best: to train well, eat well and go the extra mile. But, if you’re anything like myself (a competitive sportsperson with an A-type personality and an intense drive to succeed), you don’t do things by half measures.
For me, it started with the best intentions and ended in orthorexia—a term used to describe when the focus on healthy/clean eating develops into an unhealthy obsession. The core issue surrounds 'nutritional alarmism': deeming certain foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and setting stringent rules around their consumption. Eating the ‘bad’ foods can be accompanied by feelings of guilt, worry or inadequacy, whilst researching, sourcing and consuming the ‘good’ foods can turn into a preoccupation, disguised as satisfaction.
Since the culture of competitive sport promotes eating healthily and making certain lifestyle choices, it can be very easy to normalise orthorexic eating behaviours under the guise of ‘dedication’. I for one, thought the restriction and dissatisfaction that accompanied clean eating was just one more sacrifice elite athletes made in order to gain a competitive edge. By devoting more attention to my diet and weight, I thought I was acting like an elite athlete was supposed to. I had decided that if what I ate was going to propel my progress towards my performance goals, it was a sacrifice worth making.
What I believed:
- Sacrifice = success
- There are good and bad foods
- Increased discipline = increased reward
What I wish I knew:
What can start as a well-intended attempt to eat as healthily as possible can easily become an unhealthy fixation, especially when compounded by other lifestyle factors such as a high stress environment or performance pressure. Any form of rigidity or restriction around food is unhealthy and can quickly backfire when it comes to health and performance. The best athletes are those who achieve the best balance, NOT those who sacrifice the most.
Often, those vulnerable to disordered eating behaviours are in environments where they feel trapped, out of control or under pressure (from themselves or others) to succeed. The rewards gained from taking control over their food intake and/or training becomes magnified and can start to become the center of their life.
When I initially set sail along the path of using exercise and nutrition to manipulate my body composition, I was living 4000 miles away from my family and friends on an athletics scholarship in America. Without even realising it, I was experiencing a huge loss of autonomy; suddenly no longer control over my own training or most other aspects of my life. I'd also placed enormous pressure on myself to succeed in my new environment, not just for myself but for my coach, team, and the family and friends I'd left behind.
Without much else within my direct control, I took comfort from the freedom to manipulate my diet in a way which would benefit my performance...or so I'd thought. Taking ownership over being the healthiest, most disciplined and dedicated version of myself made me feel reassuringly, satisfyingly, unequivocally, in control.
Initially, this control coincided with athletics success—providing a mental comfort blanket of denial to fall back on (cognitive dissonance). When the cracks began to show and the performance success dropped off, my reaction was to cling the comfort blanket of control that bit tighter, refusing to believe it was anything but commitment to my sport. It took months (maybe even years) to understand how self-destructive this control had become.
What I believed:
- Control = comfort
- Success in sport/weight loss = success and satisfaction in life
What I wish I knew:
Certain environments can trigger an attempt to compensate for an underlying sense of constraint. As the search for a sense of identity, autonomy or competence gathers momentum, reclaiming control can become a fixation. The trouble is, when we are controlling food or exercise, we are only controlling food or exercise. The attempt to control other things in our lives are inevitably unsuccessful. The good news is that this intense, all-consuming, painstaking control is not required for your recovery from RED-S (or your success and happiness in life for that matter). A true and complete recovery process relies on your ability to let go of this control completely... Now is the time to find out how.