In light of another recent social media post involving a professional athlete discussing body image struggles and restrictive eating measures, I am reminded that I have a very small voice in the big world of athletics as it relates to being heard but I refuse to stop expressing my thoughts and concerns as to how athletes eat and fuel for endurance sports as there is a safe way to achieve athletic excellence without compromising health and performance.
Sadly, our culture is obsessed with leanness. It's far too often that an athlete is praised for being lean and competitively fit, which drives the athlete to assume that leanness is the key to athletic success, self-confidence and notoriety. On a daily basis, athletes receive persistent spoken/written/viewed messages about body composition and performance/fitness from social media, magazines, books, notable athletic figures, coaches and other experts which reinforces the need to look a certain way - often at any cost (health, performance and quality of life).
Without even the slightest disclaimer that there can be great physical and psychological damage that stems from being strict, ritualistic, rigid and anxious about eating when training for an athletic event, athletes literally feed off the reinforcement given by society when the body becomes more athletically "acceptable" in terms of body composition.
Every time an athlete is glorified for experiencing athletic success while achieving/maintaining a lean, toned and fit body composition, there's a good probability that society is rewarding unhealthy eating and training behaviors. Eventually resulting in low energy availability (RED-S), there are great health and performance consequences to overtraining and undereating.
There's no denying that a fit and strong body is what every athlete strives to achieve come race day and to achieve a body that can survive the demands of race day, training and nutritional adaptations can be made to foster performance improvements. But without optimal health, the body image that you achieve is all for nothing if you can't do much with it on race day.
What's the point of having a lean body if you can't do anything with it when you are asked to perform at your best? Far too many athletes are training and not eating for an image competition instead of an athletic competition.
Although more and more athletes are speaking openly about personal struggles with eating and body image, there is still a strong taboo with disordered eating and eating disorders. There are some brave athletes who openly admit to some type of body image struggle or disordered eating/eating disorder habits during or at the end of a sporting career (often concurrent with a serious health issue, debilitating injury or mental health disorder) but we can not overlook the fact that a great amount of athletes are secretly training with a very restrictive diet in an effort to change body image, often encouraged, inspired and counseled by a coach or nutrition expert.
Knowing that goal-oriented, highly disciplined and competitive athletes who like to feel control in life and base self-worth, athletic readiness and confidence on a certain body image, are at greatest risk for an eating disorder, it's critical that coaches and professional experts address their own personal relationships with food and the body prior to delivering nutrition advice. I personally believe that due to the many uncredible nutrition experts and weight-focused coaches providing unethically safe advice to athletes, athletes are led to believe that the best/only/most effective way to experience performance gains is to change body composition through dietary/fueling manipulation and training.
Because there is such a very thin line between maintaining your health, having longevity in your sport and maintaining quality of life and achieving athletic excellence on race day with a forced body composition change, if an athlete has even the most smallest struggle or occasional thoughts about body image or restrictive eating strategies in an effort to improve performance or to change body composition, it's highly recommended and encouraged to seek help from a trusted, credible and sport dietitian who specializes in your sport and understands how to counsel athletes who suffer from poor body image thoughts and a tendency/desire to intentional restrict food/fuel.
Before a serious health issue negatively affects your performance, now is the time to ask yourself....
What's driving your need for athletic leanness?