When I heard of the six female athletes who recently alleged that focus on body fat percentage in the University of Oregon track and field program led to their messy eating, these are the undertones of Mary Cain, the 25-year-old Nike Oregon Project track phenomenon who was in such a rush to get thinner that it eroded his performance, his health and his bones. To think that similar scenarios do not occur in athletics is naive.
Monica Van Winkle, sports dietitian for Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Pacific Athletics, and owner of Nutrition in action, said this focus on body fat stems from data on average body fat percentages for different types of athletes, but she knows of no studies that actually equate body fat with performance. “I have seen athletes with higher body fat be the fastest on their team, I have also seen athletes with lower body fat being the fastest on their team.”
Van Winkle, previously a sports dietician for the Mariners and University of Washington athletics department, said she no longer uses body fat stones. “In our messy eating culture, people prioritize appearance over performance, and that can derail an athlete’s career,” she said, adding that many his athletes are already on the verge of low energy availability – when the body does not have enough fuel to support all physiological functions – then focusing on these numbers can put them on the brink. “There is a place for that, but it’s completely overrated, and we lose the aspect of just talking to athletes and seeing them as human beings.”
Kara Bazzi, Clinical Director and Co-Founder of the Seattle Eating Disorders Center Opal: Food + Body Wisdom, said putting too much emphasis on weight as a key factor in athletic performance misses the mark, given that so many performance factors – such as genetics, sleep, training, diet, training, stress levels and mental health – are not related to weight. “Most importantly, body-related metrics are not neutral as we live in a weight-focused society,” she said. “We cannot assume that athletes will use this information as mere ‘scientific’ and useful data. It is ignoring the meaning and impact of data. And, as we’ve seen in recent University of Oregon Situation Reports, it can be incredibly problematic. “
Unfortunately, athlete body shame doesn’t stop at the college and professional levels – it begins in adolescence. A coach tells a 12-year-old girl that she can only eat cake on her birthday. A college cross-country coach giving students a list of “NOT TO EAT” and “acceptable to eat” foods, saying it would help the team win every race they compete in.
“Once you pathologize someone’s eating, you can’t take them back and you could be setting them up for a life-threatening eating disorder,” Van Winkle said. “Kids admire their coaches for everything, so you have to be careful. This is when their body goes through puberty and they reach their years of peak bone growth, and you can’t get that time back. I’ve seen so many athletes have osteopenia [low bone mass] at an early age. It doesn’t take that long to settle down.
Amanda Bullat, Registered Dietitian in Seattle, Owner of Alpine nutrition, started running cross-country as a first year in high school. The seeds for her future eating disorder were planted when her trainer performed bioimpedance tests. “I remember obsessing over body fat count and thinking that I had better get slimmer to be a better runner,” Bullat said. Despite getting a new trainer the following year who focused on training and team building rather than size or body composition, she was running enough on her own to stop menstruating. .
Then, in sophomore year at the University of Portland, Bullat ran his first marathon – qualifying for the Boston Marathon, earning a top spot on the school’s cross-country team and receiving compliments on the weight she lost during her training. “This is where lifestyle behaviors started to shift towards a messy eating and a messy exercise relationship,” she said. “It was another way for me to validate that this is what it takes to be a Collegiate Division I athlete.”
Because Bullat wasn’t a recruited stock athlete, she flew under the radar while watching her teammates restrict their food intake to try and maintain their competitive edge. In her senior year, she was running faster than scholarship athletes, who were too stressed and injured to perform well. “Even though I was always in a messy place with food and exercise, I wasn’t as messy as the girls who felt the pressure from college to perform in a certain way. – and my body wasn’t hurt yet. “
Van Winkle said that when an athlete starts restricting his food, he often feels faster and performs better, making it difficult to reach him. “They will feel good about their sport, but below the surface all of their systems are failing. They run towards the cliff and will eventually fall. Then their athletic performance declines, they lose the joy of their sport, they become undernourished – and they take a long time to heal.
Bazzi said that even when coaches aren’t focusing on body fat and weight, staying silent is doing their athletes a disservice. “I’ve heard coaches say, ‘We don’t have a problem in our team so there’s no need to talk about it.’ Or, ‘I’m afraid to say the wrong thing and make it worse, so I think saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing.’ you are always sailing under the pressures of the food culture, so it is important that coaches discuss these issues with their teams – even if their formulation is not perfect – to help prevent future problems.
Ideally, Van Winkle said coaches help athletes focus on performance, not appearance. “Beauty is in how our bodies can move, not how they look. “