Eating Disorders and Triathletes, Close to Home?

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 
starts today.  Their website notes: 
"Our theme this year is Let's Get Real and our goal is to expand the conversation and highlight stories we don't often hear. Our culture has complicated relationships with food, exercise, and appearance.
30 million Americans will struggle with a full-blown eating disorder and millions more will battle food and body image issues that have untold negative impacts on their lives.
But because of stigma and old stereotypes, many people don't get the support they deserve. Join the conversation and help us raise awareness, bust myths, get people screened, and start journeys to healing."


One local athlete confided in me a couple years ago that, when growing up, she was one of those with an eating issue, "and it was a real problem getting over."  She says they called her "chicken legs," and it bothered her greatly.  But get over it she did.  Susequently, she blossomed since!  She was able to turn this liabilty as a youth into a significant asset as a now adult long course triathlete.  (I can see you're jealous already.  Me too, actually.)  She has a little better control of what makes it off her plate into her mouth, perfect awareness and motivation that those in this sport try so dilgently to attain. 


While touring colleges with my daughter a while back, I found this posted on the wall of the infirmary of a mid west university:

                                                            Staggering Facts...

  • 54% of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat (Martin, 2007)
  • If mannequins were women, they would not be able to bear children.
  • Research shows that just 3-5 minutes of engaging in fat talk substantially increases body dissatisfaction (Stice, 2003)
  • Four out of ten Americans either suffered or have known someone who has suffered an eating disorder (NEDA, 2005)
  • As many as 20 million females are battling an eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia. Millions more are battling binge eating. (Crowther, J. H., et al. 1992)
  • Most fashion models are thinner than 98% of most women.
  • 81% of ten year olds are afraid of being fat (Martin, 2007)
  • 25% of American men and 45% of American women are on a diet on any given day (Smolak, L., 1996)
While I cannot speak for the reproducibility of these "statistics" you get the point.  Eating disorders are serious business and triathletes are neither excluded nor immune. Even celebrities like Paula Abdul, Justine Bateman, Karen Carpenter, Susan Dey, Tracey Gold, Princess Di, and Joan Rivers have experienced an eating disorder.  EDs have the highest mortality of any of the mental illnesses.  In fact, 20% of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart disease.  But, according to the South Carolina Dept of Mental Health only one person in ten with an eating disorder ever receives treatment.

If you're reading this blog it's because you're interested in triathlon performance.  Compiling a complete piece on eating disorders is beyond the scope of this blog but suffice it to say that it's a serious issue with endurance athletes and can have a negative influence on their performance.

Casa Palmora is a clinic in California that specializes in those patients with ED.  In their advertising they point toward a number of famous athletes who've suffered with eating irregularities including 9 time Olympic Gold Medalist Nadia Comenechi and Bahne Rabe, a winner of 8 Olympic Gold Medals in rowing who also suffered from anorexia which would ultimately contribute to his early death.

Others you'd know include tennis player Zina Garrison, skater Nancy Kerrigan, jockey Laffit Pincay, gymnast Cathy Johnson, etc.  A quick check of PubMed notes a study by DiGioacchmo et al. of 583 triathletes  where 39% of the females and 23% of the males scored below the mid point on a standardized test to construct Calorie Control.  "All of the subjects indicated dissatisfaction with their body mass index (BMI). The study participants revealed attempts to reduce body weight by means of energy restriction, severe limitation of food groups and excessive exercise...  "The triathlon seems to be a sport that is susceptible to a higher prevalence of disordered eating," noted this study. 

Nancy Clark, RD says that, "Athletes with eating disorders tend to be very talented, hardworking people who ache inside and fail to see their strengths.  Something inside them says they should always be working or studying or exercising.  Taking time to hang out and chat with others makes them feel guilty.  They need to learn being "human" - like the  rest of us - is more attainable than being "perfect." That said, I would predict that many of you reading this right now understand that need to be doing, doing something, and doing it right now.  Right?
So whether you are talking bulimia, anorexia, etc. in most cases they can be both treated and prevented.  We define eating disorder generally as an "obsession with food and weight that harms a person's well being."  The cause is incompletely understood, and although initially it may start with a preoccupation with food and weight, this is a multifaceted affliction. Societal pressure for "thin is in" or "you can never be too thin or too tan," excess stress or needing to have the feeling of being "in control" all contribute.

We already know that in addition to diminished athletic performance, physical problems can effect the heart, kidneys, GI tract, and lead to menstrual irregularities as well as dry, scaly skin.

For the person with an eating disorder, accepting the fact that treatment is in order may the single hardest step.  Occasionally inpatient hospitalization is required.  Significant counseling of the patient, spouse and family can all contribute to the potential for success.  The Internet is rife with help like the National Eating Disorder Association whose sole goal is to aid those in need by specialized, individually oriented care hopefully pointing to a successful outcome.  They are careful to address both the medical and nutritional components as well as assisting in securing insurance company coverage when needed.

In summary, this is a common, destructive disorder and if this blog leads to just one person seeking assistance, it will be my most successful writing to date.  Help a friend!

Credits:  NEDA
              Google images
              Denison University Health and Counseling Center

Comments (0)

No comments yet.

Leave a comment