Starting the Conversation: Talking about Diet, Food, and Nutrition with Athletes
Posted on November 11th, 2018
By Hannah Stoyel
As a Performance Psychologist and a PhD Candidate, I split my time between being in the gym, on the pitch, or on a pool deck with athletes and sitting behind my computer screen researching about athletes and their psychology. My double life (call me Hannah Montana) allows me to be the best I can be at both my jobs, and it also allows me first hand to see when new and innovative research is getting stuck in the lab and not being put into practice.
One area where this issue is extremely pronounced is around the topic of food, nutrition, and eating disorders in athletes. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that eating disorders in athletes is the subject of my PhD work at UCL and therefore I am of course more aware of the literature in this topic area).
The extent of the research on eating disorders in athletes is vast, but with issues of consistency. A large majority of the research has shown that aesthetic sport participants–such as gymnastics, figure skating–are at a greater risk for developing an eating disorder than those in sports such as cricket in which a lean physique does not better performance or have an aesthetic advantage (Sundgot-Borgen & Torstveit, 2004). There are nuances in the research literature that disagree on the prevalence rates of eating disorders/disordered eating for athletes compared to non-athlete populations and other aspects that I won’t go into here (but do get in touch if you’re interested in a reading list!). However, the key takeaway is that athletes do suffer from eating disorders that are uniquely related to combined societal and sport-specific pressures (Anderson, Petrie, & Neumann, 2012). It is the reality of sport that better nutrition and often a body type with less body fat can mean performance benefits, especially in those lean sports.
So how do we talk to athletes about food and nutrition in a positive light that does not ignore the very real pressure that athletes feel to eat in a calculated way to benefit sport performance?
Be Aware. Be Understanding
It is easy to fall into the habit of telling athletes, of almost any age, to just relax about food and to eat what they want because they burn so many calories, but this can be an insult their dedication to their sport. The reality of sport is that it can require planning to fit in meals around training, and it needs to be appreciated that measured calorie and nutrient intake depending on where each athlete is in their season is a valid aspect to being an athlete. Having sympathy for this aspect of the lives of athletes is the takeaway. However, it is important to point to out that goals and aspirations should not be focused on losing weight to benefit performance. This can be a warning sign that disordered thoughts are present (Krentz & Warschburger, 2013). Sport aspirations should never revolve around body shape or weight, it should be about performance betterment and parents, coaches, and teammates should look out for this type of chat. Having the awareness that even if athletes aren’t looking to lose weight, they are more likely more cognisant of what they put in their bodies as it quite literally fuels their passion. Therefore, the ways we talk about food with athletes needs to take this into account, leading us into the next point.
There needs to be a big push to provide the athletes with recourses about good nutrition tailored to their sport. Athletes are less likely to restrict if they understand the nutrients they need, and how to fuel properly. True nutrition education and access to support for athletes to turn to when they want to make changes to their diet is crucial. With the demands of each sport and the differing challenges that each part of the competition season brings, athletes may react to changes in their bodies by wanting to adjust their diet, and so education for them to do this safely is paramount (Cooper & Winter, 2016).
Create an open dialogue
Many coaches worry about even bringing up the topic of food, diet, body shape, etc and that is understandable. Both the research and anecdotal evidence cites times when coaches incited eating disordered in athletes with their comments (Kerr, Berman & Souza, 2006). However, having diet as a topic that is totally off limits can mean that athletes feel they have nowhere to turn if they are struggling, and when it comes to eating disorders, prevention and early intervention is vital. A paper by Joy, Kussman, and Nattive (2016) present a great example of a dialogue to start with athletes who coaches, family, or friends think may be suffering. It starts with the first question simply being “How have you been feeling in general? How do you feel about yourself” and moving into more specific questions about diet, self-perception, training regime, support available, and finally overall health inquiries, it is a great guide to which to turn. Helping athletes talk about themselves, their mental health, and overall wellbeing can allow for them to ask for help and perhaps prevent an eating disorder.
My suggestions here are just brushing the surface of the topic, and they are not black and white. They do not work for every athlete in every sport. But it is a start. So many published research articles conclude with saying that coaches need help athletes, or future research should look into how to talk to athletes, etc, but stop short of actually suggesting ways to broach the topic with athletes. I am doing my best to start the conversation and move the topic forward from the page to the pitch.
A bit about Hannah: Originally from the US, I now live in London. Growing up, I was a competitive gymnast (and now qualified gymnastics coach) and then nationally-ranked swimmer. I got my MSc in Applied Sport Psychology in 2016 and since then have worked in Sport Psychology with private clients in all different sports and ages. I also work as a Psychologist for England Swimming. I am currently a PhD student at University College London. firstname.lastname@example.org; https://www.optimisepotential-sport.com/
Anderson, C.M., Petrie, T.A., & Neumann, C.S. (2012). Effects of sport pressures on female collegiate athletes: A preliminary longitudinal investigation. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1(2), 120–134
Cooper, H., & Winter, S. (2017). Exploring the Conceptualization and Persistence of Disordered Eating in Retired Swimmers. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 11(3), 222-239.
Krentz, E. M., & Warschburger, P. (2013). A longitudinal investigation of sports‐related risk factors for disordered eating in aesthetic sports. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 23(3), 303-310.
Kerr, G., Berman, E., & Souza, M. J. D. (2006). Disordered eating in women’s gymnastics: Perspectives of athletes, coaches, parents, & judges. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 18(1), 28-43.
Joy, E., Kussman, A., & Nattiv, A. (2016). 2016 update on eating disorders in athletes: A comprehensive narrative review with a focus on clinical assessment and management. Br J Sports Med, 50(3), 154-162.
Sundgot-Borgen, J., & Torstveit, M. K. (2004). Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in the general population. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 14(1), 25-32.