It's been awhile since I've written a blog. I have been mulling over several different topics and struggling to settle on one of them, until recently. This past week I happened to read another story with the same theme and reading this article was the tipping point for me in deciding to write on this issue.
Just a bit of background first. I frequently share information about my work as a dietitian with my husband. Nothing too personal like my clients' names or specific details, mostly just about the constant struggles people have with eating and their bodies. He serves as a bit of a sounding board, someone I can "unload on".... sorry Chris ;)
I've worked with a number of highly athletic people over the years, and I've shared their stories with him, their fear of eating carbohydrate because it "makes you fat" or their hyper-vigilant focus on exercise training that really doesn't leave much room for rest and repair days. He can understand the athlete perspective because he's been a recreational and competitive cyclist for over 3 decades. It makes for some really good dialogue over coffee on a Sunday morning.
He likes to stay up to date on all things cycling and reads a lot about what's going on in the professional space. Last year some time, he began sharing with me stories about professional cyclists who had come out publicly about their struggles with eating disorders. It seemed almost every month he forwarded another heartbreaking account of a professional athlete caught up in the trap of performance at all costs, body weight struggles, and surviving in quite a cut-throat environment. Here, I share some of their stories:
In a story in Cycling News (Jani Brajkovic Opens Up About His and the Pro-peloton's Eating Disorders ), Janez "Jani" Brajkovic talks about his struggles with bulimia after testing positive for a substance banned by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) that was in a meal replacement drink he had been using. Jani began his pro cycling career in 2005 and has raced for many teams over the years and finished 9th overall in in 2012 Tour de France. Over the years, he has struggled on and off with a poor relationship with food and disordered eating behaviors. When his training hit a roadblock, or he struggled in his relationship with a coach, his eating disorder blamed him for not being good enough and provided a sense of control when everything around him felt out of control. His restriction and purging of food led him to the meal replacement because it was one of a few foods he could keep down. He cried before going out for every ride, he felt desperate and dark, and shares "the thing I loved, I dedicated my whole life to, was being taken away from me." Jani describes a cycling world filled with disordered eating and states "the problem of eating disorders in the peloton is a major one...every team I've been on – from Continental to Pro Continental to World Tour – I've had teammates struggling. There were at least five, six with an eating disorder, and many more with disordered-eating behaviors. They were team captains, GT (Grand Tour) podium finishers, some were just awesome riders, teammates – happy boys if you looked from a third-person perspective" He mentions it's very easy to fall under the radar of detection by hiding it, that doctors often miss it, and sadly, managers often ignore it. He shares his story in hopes of bringing attention to a problem that no one is really talking about.
If anyone follows cyclocross, a cycling discipline that combines mountain biking and road cycling with a lot of cold weather and mud thrown in, they probably have heard of Ellen Noble, a rider from the US who had an incredible season in 2017 where she placed second in the under-23 age group at the World Championships. Shortly after, life threw her some curve balls with a relationship break-up, a move, and was also living on her own away from her family. She was stressed, felt out of control, and admitted "the only thing I can control right now is my diet." She felt decreasing her food intake would produce weight loss and improve her performance, as well as provide her something to focus on and distract her from life's challenges. However, her performance and confidence quickly spiraled down as she noticed something was wrong. It seemed all too familiar because she had struggled with body image issues and food anxieties in the past. Fortunately, Ellen opened up to her coach and began working with a sports nutritionist, began eating more food, including more carbohydrate, and began to get back on track. Ellen knows she's not the only bike racer to struggle with disordered eating and has shared her story in hopes of helping others avoid making the same mistake. However, her story in FloBikes (The Dietary Issues that Nearly Wrecked Ellen Noble's Season) highlights that she is aware she will "always struggle — as many athletes do — with the cognitive dissonance of eating a lot, while also trying to stay lean."
Ben King, the 2010 US National Road Cycling Champion, may never have achieved this great feat if his struggles with an eating disorder had persisted. When Ben was a teenager and beginning his road to a professional career in the sport, he admired the pro-riders who looked like "skeletons" and he decided to lose weight to improve his speed. He began to purge his food, and it very quickly provided a sense of control and became a repetitive habit. He reached a breaking point when the stress of his eating disorder and his training regimen was too much to handle. He describes how brutal the sport of cycling can be and how he was "beating his body into submission."
Fortunately for Ben, his faith provided a space to shift away from the shame, blame, and self-hate behaviors and begin to take care of his body, fuel it with food, and adopted a healthier approach to cycling. You can read more about Ben's story and listen to a short video here.
The title of Mara Abbott's story Anything for This: The Costs, Benefits of Life in Elite Sport sums it up pretty well. In 2016, Mara retired after 10 years in the sport of cycling with accomplishments including two overall wins in the Giro Rosa in Italy, two national championship titles, and a fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics. With focus on remaining a competitive athlete, she decided to pursue running, with her sights set on reaching the Olympic level in this new sport. She very quickly suffered from a stress fracture in her hip, and a bone scan revealed low bone density. Mara had suffered from an eating disorder earlier in her career and took a break from cycling in 2011, at a time when she realized her eating disorder could kill her. Mara talks about how "eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. One study also found them to be 2-3 times more common in competitive athletes than the general population, particularly among endurance sports. It's not just the girls, either -- a female friend who struggled with multiple eating disorders during her professional cycling career told me of her training partners and friends, 'It was boys who taught me the dirtiest and most harmful tricks of the eating disorder trade.' "
And, now, I come full circle to the "tipping point" article that brought me to write this blog. Initially, my intention was to write an article focusing only on eating disorders and unrealistic body weight pursuits in cycling. But, the opinion piece in the New York Times I Was the Fastest Girl in America Until I Joined Nike sparked me to bring attention to this issue from a broader perspective. This article highlights the story of Mary Cain, an elite runner who was the youngest American athlete ever to represent the United States at a World Championships. At age 17, Mary was recruited by the Nike Oregon Project, one of the best track teams in the world. The article continues to discuss how Mary got caught up in the "win at all costs culture" where she was continually pushed to diet and lose more and more weight. The article also highlights the stories of other athletes, such as figure skater Gracie Gold, who was also encouraged to lose weight to improve performance, eventually leading to disordered eating that almost cost her life and Kara Goucher, and Olympic distance runner, who recalls being weighed in front of teammates, being cooked "meager meals" and was forced to eat alone in her room so that coaches would not catch her eating extra energy bars.
This is a problem. A VERY BIG problem!!! People's bodies and lives are being manipulated and destroyed to win.... win at all costs. According to the National Eating Disorders Association statistics (NEDA), "In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa," and "Though most athletes with eating disorders are female, male athletes are also at risk—especially those competing in sports that tend to emphasize diet, appearance, size and weight. In weight-class sports (wrestling, rowing, horseracing) and aesthetic sports (bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming, diving) about 33% of male athletes are affected. In female athletes in weight class and aesthetic sports, disordered eating occurs at estimates of up to 62%."
Just like many of the athletes highlighted in this blog, I chose to tackle this topic to bring awareness to an issue that often flies under the radar of performance at all costs. In my practice as a dietitian, I've worked with many recreational athletes who also struggle with disordered eating and body weight concerns. This issue transcends all levels of athletic performance because we live in a must-win culture that also idealizes the thin and fit body. I ask At What Cost?!
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating and body weight concerns, there is help. If you live in the Asheville, NC community the Carolina Resource Center for Eating Disorders is a great place to start. The National Eating Disorders Association is another resource for help. You can also reach out to a friend, family member, coach, or any other adult you trust. You are not alone and do not need to keep this struggle silent.