While a lot of emphasis in sports nutrition is on eating enough, and for good reason, there’s not a whole lot of conversation around one of the biggest side effects of not eating in adequate and satisfying ways: binge eating. It’s uncomfy to experience, and it’s even more uncomfy to talk about.
If you're a current or retired athlete reading this, I want you to know that:
You are not alone.
There are very valid reasons for binges, both physiological and psychological.
Sometimes efforts to be “dedicated” and “disciplined” with your food can backfire - and that is not your fault.
Binge eating is not the same as overeating. An instance of binge eating, according to the DSM-V, is defined as:
Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances.
A sense of lack of control over eating (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating).
An instance of binge eating is also associated with at least three of the following:
Eating much more rapidly than normal.
Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating.
Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward.
While about 2% of the general population is believed to experience binge eating disorder, research suggests at least 10% of NCAA Division 1 student-athletes experience binge eating at least once a week. To put that into perspective, at least 12 out of the 120 people on my collegiate track and field team in college were experiencing binges on a weekly basis, if not more. One of them was definitely me, and I remember how confused, disappointed, frustrated, and, worst of all, alone I felt about it.
When we think about it from an objective standpoint though, it actually makes TOTAL FUCKING SENSE that athletes experience binge eating as often as they do. Let’s break it down:
Real or perceived dietary restrictions intended to improve performance. “Restriction” doesn’t necessarily mean eating 1200 calories a day. It can mean avoiding certain foods because of the belief that they’re “unhealthy” or will negatively impact performance, weight, or body composition. These certain foods tend to be ones that taste really fucking good. And avoiding them can lead to feelings of deprivation and subsequently trigger binge eating.
Weight and body composition requirements or expectations. Body weight and composition are just TWO of FORTY factors that have been shown to impact performance. Weight class sports like wrestling, boxing, rowing, etc. literally have body weight requirements for athletes in different positions. So does football, though in a more “casual” sense - while there aren’t defined weight classes or categories to compete in like the others, there are definitely body weight expectations depending on the position being played. “Lean” sports like endurance sports, dance, figure skating, etc. put immense pressure on being lean and equate leanness with fitness - which is entirely inaccurate and very damaging to athletes’ mental health as well as long-term performance potential.
Performance pressure. For student-athletes, pressure to perform both on and off the field can lead to immense stress, especially if scholarships are riding on athletic and/or academic performance. If left unchecked and without appropriate coping tools, this stress can trigger binge eating in an effort to self-soothe.
Body comparisons to other athletes (in addition to non-athletes, especially in media). “If I look like them, then I’ll perform like them” is a thought that crosses most athletes’ minds at some point. Athletes are in more situations where comparisons are almost impossible to avoid - competing necessitates comparison, uniforms can be objectifying and bring more attention to one’s body, and the media has a weird obsession with criticizing female athletes’ bodies. Feelings of inadequacy and body dissatisfaction can lead to pressure and stress which increase risk of bingeing. Restricting food intake or exercising to compensate for food eaten can lead to increased hunger and cravings which also increase risk of binge eating. Comparisons are inevitable; what’s more important is how we respond to them.
Injuries and off seasons. Periods of injury or reduced training can lead to concerns about weight gain and body image, which may trigger binge eating behaviors. If athletes tend to eat very rigidly while in season, the off season can feel like a very extended “cheat day.” If athletes feel like they miss out on tasty food while they’re training and competing, being injured or having more time and freedom during the off season can feel like prime time to “make up” for all the food that was missed the previous season, and to “prepare” for anticipated rigid eating patterns once they’re back in season.
Nutrition (mis)information provided by coaches & other athletes. Athletes hold their coaches and teammates (especially high-performing teammates) in very high regard. If these very well-respected support people give biased or incorrect nutrition information, athletes can develop irrational fears around certain foods and nutrients which can lead to unnecessary restriction and, consequently, binge eating.
Athletic career transitions (in addition to life transitions or retirement from sport). Transitions are generally extremely stressful for anyone, which inherently increases risk of binge eating as a coping mechanism. To a competitive athlete, sport is life; when anything about it changes, it can feel like a crisis. And food can be the one constant amidst the chaos.
Unrestricted or significantly increased access to food. College cafeterias, training tables, fueling stations - the landscape of collegiate fueling has definitely evolved! This is awesome because it means more resources provided to athletes to ensure access to adequate nutrition. It can also be overwhelming and daunting to have such extensive access to foods, especially if there was limited access previously due to financial insecurity, overly-controlling “almond moms,” or restrictive eating habits prior to starting college.
So, binge eating kinda makes sense when you consider all of these factors, right? Once you have the awareness, understanding, and affirmation, the next question is: “Now what?”
…which will be explored in another blog post!