How Does Diet Culture Affect Athletic Performance?

Societal standards of achieving the 'perfect' body influence people of all different backgrounds and lifestyles, including athletes. Proper nutrition is a key component of athletic performance, but many rules that the dieting world has implemented may leave this population at risk. Extreme dieting and eliminating certain foods or food groups can compromise an athlete’s performance and overall well-being.

Why do so many athletes have eating disorders?

By having a desire to achieve a certain body type, many athletes are tempted to engage in certain diets or eliminate certain foods to reach this look. This, in turn, can further hinder one's relationship with food, causing negative thoughts and feelings around food choices and dietary habits. For example, an athlete might feel guilt or shame for eating a donut because a donut is deemed as an unhealthy food option and high in calories.

Research findings indicate a range of eating disorders prevalence among athletes, with figures varying from 0% to 19% in males and 6% to 45% in females. In one study involving 3,509 male and female competitive athletes, 74% reported engaging in binge eating, 26% reported vomiting, and 50% reported fasting behaviors. Another study, encompassing 846 females across 67 different sports, found that 25% practiced restrictive eating and 18% reported eating disorders.

Does the type of sport matter?

The type of sport can indeed play a significant role in the prevalence of disordered eating. Athletes who engage in weight-class sports such as karate or aesthetic sports such as ballet are at high risk. Additionally, athletes involved in sports like swimming and running may face increased susceptibility due to societal perceptions linking thinness with improved performance in these activities.

Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S)

Prolonged severe calorie restriction can result in RED-S, a condition where the body experiences inadequate energy availability (LEA). This can have detrimental effects on an athlete's performance, recovery, and overall health. One indicator of LEA in women is the presence of menstrual irregularities or the absence of a menstrual cycle altogether. RED-S can impact an athlete's health in many ways, including gastrointestinal function, cardiovascular health, psychological well-being, and compromised bone health.

Performance vs. aesthetics

A common challenge athletes face is fueling for performance versus fueling to achieve a certain physique. Fueling strategies look vastly different between the two. There is a common misconception that achieving a certain body type or figure will lead to better performance. However, in reality, this may not be the case, and prioritizing physique over performance can actually impede athletic capabilities.

Is eliminating foods or food groups good for athletes?

Limiting certain food intake for weight loss or aesthetic reasons may hinder an athlete's performance and recovery abilities. For instance, popular fad diets like low carb and keto are widely embraced today, often for weight loss. However, active athletes who regularly engage in moderate to high-intensity workouts benefit from including carbohydrates in their diet. Carbs serve as the body's preferred fuel source during intense exercise, enhancing performance and aiding recovery, so removing them from the diet may have adverse effects.

Furthermore, athletes require higher caloric intake than the general population to support performance and recovery. Severe dieting and calorie restriction can lead to significant caloric deficits, inadequate fueling for their sport, and potential loss of muscle mass. While weight loss may occur, it often comes at the expense of impaired athletic performance and recovery. Individual caloric needs vary based on factors such as activity level, sport type, genetics, and lifestyle.

How can you get the most out of exercise and a healthy diet?

To maximize the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet, it's crucial to adopt a balanced and personalized approach tailored to individual needs and goals. This involves educating oneself on proper nutrition strategies, focusing on performance-driven goals rather than aesthetics, and working with professionals like sports dietitians to optimize fueling strategies.

Education

As an athlete, working with a sports dietitian on fueling strategies is the gold standard. Social media is flooded with false information and non-credentialed influencers promoting an appealing product or diet. Many of these claims are unrealistic but can be deemed as attractive for people looking to lose weight or change their bodies.

Athletes should be educated on nutrition strategies for their specific sport, with an emphasis on consuming enough calories and macronutrients to meet their caloric demands each day.

Performance-driven goals

Instead of focusing on aesthetic-driven goals (e.g., weight loss, lean stomach), switching the mindset to performance-driven goals is going to be most beneficial for athletes. Performance-driven goals can include running a half-marathon in X amount of time, bench-pressing X amount of weight, or holding a handstand for X amount of time. To improve performance, proper nutrition plays a key role, which ideally leads to less emphasis on physique.

Balanced and personalized approach

Individual calorie and macronutrient needs vary among every individual. Even athletes who compete in the same sport have different nutritional needs. Focusing on the individual and not using a one-size-fits-all approach is imperative in sports nutrition. Everyone has different goals, schedules, genetics, food preferences, and lifestyles that make nutrition extremely individualized.

A balanced approach to nutrition by incorporating healthy, nutrient-dense foods most of the time will benefit one's performance and recovery. However, still consuming foods that are deemed as less healthy, but really enjoyable, can have a positive effect on an athlete's mental health and well-being. This should also be considered when planning meals and snacks.

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