“You’re an RD, right?” That’s what one of my patients asked me last year shortly before he got up from the table and walked out of my office, never to return. It was more of a rhetorical question, really, his polite way of telling me I don’t know how to do my job.
He and I were only in each other’s lives briefly, as that was not only his last visit, it was also his first. His new patient paperwork stated that he wanted to lose weight in order to complete a marathon. Upon reading that, I contacted him in advance of his visit and offered a heads-up that I would help him to run his best, and as a consequence of doing so, he might also lose weight; but I would not be helping him to lose weight in hopes that it would improve his running because – contrary to popular belief – that is not how things actually work.
Although I suspected he would respond by cancelling the appointment, to his credit he had an open enough mind to meet with me and discuss our different points of view. Elite marathon runners are all very skinny, he told me, so it only seemed logical to him that if he could alter his body to look more like theirs, then he would in turn become a better runner.
Way back in my sophomore year of high school, I held the same belief. When I looked at those teammates on my track team who were faster than me, I noticed that for the most part they were leaner than me. Consequently, I attempted to change my body by restricting my fat intake (Back in those days, people were scared of fats the same way people nowadays fear “carbs.”) in hopes that I would also run better.
In fact, I ran worse. My mom took me to a dietitian who educated me, dispelled some of the nutrition myths that I held, and convinced me to increase my fat intake. My times in all events dropped, and I was the fastest I had ever been in my young running career without my physique ever changing all that much.
Having a leaner, smaller, or lighter body can certainly have athletic upsides sometimes, just as having a heavier or larger body can sometimes be advantageous, and I am not arguing otherwise. However, a significant difference exists between an athlete who naturally has a given size or shape versus someone who tries to force his or her body into that mold. That is where so many people, like my 15-year-old self and the patient I mentioned earlier, get tripped up.
Anecdotally, we see many examples of athletes who perform worse after intentionally losing weight. Last month, I wrote about how CC Sabathia has struggled since cutting his carbohydrates in an effort to lose weight. He and his slender frame are in the midst of experiencing the two worst seasons of his career, both of which have come since he lost weight.
Sabathia gave an interview earlier this year in which he talked about the fatigue he now experiences. Carbohydrates are our main source of energy. Now that he follows a low-carbohydrate diet, no wonder he currently tires early in games now. Only twice in my life have I failed to complete bicycle routes that I set out to ride. The first was when I fell off my bike in Montana and fractured my back. The other was when I was briefly experimenting with a low-carbohydrate diet and did not have the fuel necessary to make it home.
This summer, I had a couple of rowers come to me hoping to lose weight so they could compete in lightweight crew. Each of them believed that if he could shed enough weight to just make the 160-pound cutoff, he would dominate. However, they were not taking into account that the processes necessary to alter their bodies (over-exercise and/or dietary restriction) were likely to leave them unable to put forth optimal performances. A well-nourished and properly-trained 159-pound athlete is probably going to row much better than his or her 159-pound teammate who maintains that weight by existing in a state of depletion.
At the same time, let us acknowledge that not every athlete is already at the weight at which they can perform his or her best. Some athletes, just like the rest of the population, are subject to behaviors, such as emotional overeating, that might be impacting weight. However, putting the horse before the cart means directly addressing issues that might be hindering performance while allowing weight change to naturally occur or not occur as a consequence. To try losing weight in hopes of becoming a better athlete though is to have the process backwards.
Some of the individuals who come to see me for nutrition counseling are student athletes who are struggling with an eating disorder (ED). These cases are particularly challenging, as one of the cruxes of being an athlete (at least at a competitive high school or college level) is making sure one is in top physical condition to succeed in one’s sport. While this desire to be in the best athletic condition might be approached in a healthy and manageable way by some individuals, for those who are predisposed to EDs, it can sometimes start, trigger, and/or worsen the individual’s ED.
In the sports where weight control is believed to be paramount to success (e.g., gymnastics, ballet, track and field, etc.), this focus and, in some cases, obsession with being “lean,” “fit,” or “cut,” can result in the athlete eating in a restrictive manner (e.g., cutting out carbohydrates, only eating vegetables and protein) and exercising excessively. Initially, these individuals seem to be doing the right thing, taking care of themselves and making the sacrifices needed to become the best at their sport. The problem arises when the obsession with weight, food, and exercise takes over the athlete’s life. Examples of this include avoiding social situations that involve eating in order to train harder at the gym, exercising even while injured or sick, and panicking when being faced with foods that are not on the “clean eating” food list.
While these scenarios are red flags in and of themselves, the physical ramifications of these behaviors are serious as well. One of the most common outcomes that results from overtraining and undereating in female athletes is the Female Athlete Triad. This syndrome is characterized by three conditions: energy deficiency with or without a diagnosed ED, menstrual disturbances or absence of period completely (amenorrhea), and loss of bone density resulting in osteopenia or osteoporosis. In a nutshell, when an athlete is not eating enough to fuel her training, this can lead to dangerous health problems.
Some health professionals believe that individuals who are dealing with the above problems can continue to participate in their sports as long as they are getting nutrition education from a registered dietitian and having regular check-ups with their primary care physician to make sure they are medically stable enough to compete. While I agree that for some individuals it is just a matter of education and monitoring, for those with EDs, allowing them to continue with their sport could greatly hinder the recovery process. An ED is a multifaceted problem that needs a full treatment team including a therapist, dietitian, and doctor who is knowledgeable about EDs. The focus should be on helping the athlete become physically healthy while dealing with the underlying psychological issues that are part of the ED.
When I am working with a student athlete who is exhibiting disordered eating and/or excessive exercise, I always defer to the physician on the treatment team to make the call about whether the patient is medically safe enough to participate in his or her sport. The work I do with the patient centers on helping them understand what their body’s needs are fuel-wise. This might include educating the patient about carbohydrates and why they are a necessary macronutrient (for athletes and non-athletes) and how to eat to improve one’s athletic performance.
If you or someone you know seems to be struggling with an ED related to being an athlete, it’s important to take action. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible to prevent the situation from becoming worse. Find a therapist and a dietitian who are adept at working with athletes who struggle with EDs. It is also important to alert the sports team’s trainer and coach to the problem, as they will be an integral part of the treatment team. When all of these pieces of the treatment team are in place, the likelihood of recovery is much higher.