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Breaking Free from Diet Culture: Embracing Food Freedom and Body Respect in Sports

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

If you’re here, it’s probably because you currently are or once were an athlete who’s been through a doozy of a time with your identity, food, ~eXerCisE~, and your body. Maybe you were never an “athlete” per say, but you’d definitely describe your time with food and body as a doozy. Or, perhaps more accurately, a dumpster fire.

a dog in a little hat is slowly engulfed in flames while proclaiming that everything is fine

I get it - before I became an anti-diet dietitian and created this snazzy website, I was once a scholarship D-1 student-athlete and went through the wringer with my own eating disorder. After a lot of trial and error, I managed to come out the other side. Been there, done that, got the damn T-shirt. And let me tell you, it’s been one hell of a wild ride. As a sports dietitian who’s kicked an eating disorder in the ass and out the door of my own mind and now helps athletes and retired athletes do the same, I’ve seen enough bullshit to last a lifetime.

So let’s talk about this somewhat amorphous bastard we call “diet culture” and how it rears its ugly head in sports. It looks like...

ordering a cheese-less, condiment-less (except maybe mustard), joy-less sandwich when out for lunch with teammates for fear of eating too much, not eating "like an athlete," being perceived as "undisciplined," or feeling judged by your team;

insisting on wearing baggy, extra, or unnecessary clothing to practice, despite the heat and intense workouts, because you’re self-conscious that your body doesn’t look like what you’ve been made to believe an athlete “should” look like;

almost having a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store because you can’t find non-fat mayo (??? this food product doesn’t even make sense lol but I have definitely been here before, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯);

valuing your body composition and/or weight more than your actual athletic performance, health, or personhood outside of athleticism.

In short, it makes you believe that you’ve gotta look a certain way, eat certain things, and fit into a very small, neurotically designed, very uncomfy (and exclusive!) proverbial box to be a 'real' athlete. But here’s the kicker – that’s a load of bullshit.

The sad and frustrating thing is, nobody is immune to these beliefs - just one reason why the U.S. diet industry made $160 billion in 2022 and that number is expected to keep climbing. Most athletes become athletes because they want to be the best and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen - even if it means damaging their bodies - and, at some point, aesthetics gets mistaken for athleticism because objectification, which is a story for another time. I remember this all too well.

Back in my competing days, I was still asleep in The Diet Culture Matrix and very much all in on this mentality. As a budding ~*RD2BE*~, I also felt the need to project my black and white mentality toward food onto those I cared about, because I genuinely thought I was helping. And thus the road to hell is paved…but, we don’t know what we don’t know. And all I knew at that point was, unfortunately, old-school and out-dated sport & nutrition dogma.

Counting every calorie, obsessively attributing my performance to my body weight, always feeling like I was never quite ‘enough,’ and swinging between restricting and bingeing more frequently than I was losing toe nails (this happens quite often for distance runners, soznotsoz). It sucked. Big time. It was exhausting and, frankly, soul-crushing. Once I had hip surgery the summer before my senior year of college, physical restriction lessened but mental restriction and bingeing reached an all-time high.

It wasn’t until after I graduated, after I distanced myself from the pressures of sport and academia, body comp testing, spandex, and people on my team who had their own issues to sort through, that something clicked. I spent a year in the woods remembering how to human again, which is another story for another time, and I realized that my worth as an athlete (and, let’s be real, as a human bean) wasn’t tied to a number on a scale or the size of my jeans or even if I was still running or considered a “runner.” Mind-blowing, right?

Now, as a dietitian helping athletes and retired athletes who’ve had their fair share of battles with disordered eating and body dysmorphia, I’ve seen it all. The pressure to win, conform, and constantly compare and “be better than” in sports is real and somewhat necessary, because winning is kind of the point, but it can do a number on your mental and physical health if left unchecked and prioritized above all else.

Here’s my unfiltered take:

1. Your Body, Your Rules: No one, and I mean no one, gets to dictate what your body should look like or how you should treat it. Your body is your business. Full stop. This can be tricky to navigate in certain aesthetic or weight-class sports - gymnastics, dance, figure-skating, wrestling, rowing, boxing, and even football come to mind - that put a significant emphasis on body weight and correlate it with performance. Endurance athletes experience this as well. I think the only sport that may be untouched by body expectations is ping pong, but I’ve never worked with a competitive ping pong-er, so that remains open to debate.

2. Intuitive Eating Is An [very realistic and attainable] Option: Despite what you may have heard, intuitive eating isn’t some hippie-dippie fad and it most certainly is attainable for athletes once they have a thorough understanding of what it actually is. It’s about listening to your body, considering practical situations, and making the most informed decision in the moment. It’s liberating as hell, trust me, and I wish somebody told me about it when I was competing. Knowing what to eat as an athlete is not hard. Maintaining a “healthy” relationship with food while competing and upon sport retirement most certainly is. There’s a lot more to say on this topic, so expect a separate post about it soon-ish.

3. Find Joy in Movement Again: Do you remember how you talked about your sport when you first started? What the root of your interest in it was? It was probably play, or something similar. I know my love for running stemmed from playing tag with friends and running through the fields and woods of England as part of PE class. Yes, it was as muddy as it sounds. To quote a phrase that became popular several years ago but has seemingly been forgotten, “exercise is a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for what you ate.” Movement is about feeling alive, powerful, and fucking fantastic. It has so many functions outside of fitness and muscle tone, and to reduce it to anything less is a slap in the face to the heart of sport.

4. To Hell with the ‘Ideal Athlete’ Image: If you haven’t heard yet, BMI is BS and athletes come in all shapes and sizes. Anyone who tells you otherwise can take a very long, sandy, bug-infested hike. Your strength and skill never were, and still are not, defined by your appearance or *dare I say it* body comp.

5. Mental Health, Just Like Physical Health, is Non-Negotiable: Competing is the athlete’s choice. Just like it is an athlete’s choice to compete with a twisted ankle, it is also their choice to not compete on a fucked ankle. In a similar vein, it’s an athlete’s choice to pursue competitive sport. It does entail a LOT of mental effort, discipline, compromise, resilience, and growth. You have to do things you don’t always want to do. You have to be willing to push yourself further than you thought possible, and most people need a coach to help them get there. Ya just do. That being said, you can’t perform your best if your head isn’t in the game. And, just like I would hope athletes are getting support and treatment for their physical injuries, I hope just as much that they are also able to get support and treatment for their mental injuries with the same gravity as their physical ones. Mental health is as important as physical health. Period. Doesn’t really matter how much protein you’re eating if the monkeys upstairs are wreaking havoc.

6. Do Something Different: For all that is holy and good and smothered in cheese, try your best not to make your sport your whole personality. Putting those proverbial eggs all in one basket may make you feel special and important and dedicated and whatever else your ego is telling you, but I promise it does way more harm than good long-term. If you're anything like me, you probably believe the golden years as an athlete will/would never end and you take it as a challenge when someone like me tells you that they inevitably will. Just like tendinitis, it comes for all of us at some point. So, you have two options: 1) live in denial, be woefully unprepared when that day does finally come, and try to deal by going back to a sport that you have outgrown and vice versa or project your grief into a book where you make the questionable decision to quote your diary at the start of each chapter, OR 2) embrace the freedom and beauty of the world and your personhood outside of sport and the athlete label. Make time for and nurture your other interests, even if only for an hour a week, so that you don't pigeon-hole yourself into one definition that does eventually fade. Get excited about other stuff and let that stuff add value to your life - not detract from how much you care about your sport.

Bottom line: It’s high time we kick diet culture out of sports. This isn’t about rebelling for the sake of rebelling or giving up on being your best. It’s about respect – for our bodies, our mental health, and our love for the sport we each fell in love with once upon a time. It’s about redefining what ‘best’ means. It’s about being healthy, happy, and whole – in whatever form that takes for you.

Let’s redefine what it means to be an athlete, a retired athlete, and a human bean on our own damn terms. Bodies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, united by a love for sport and a big, firm middle finger to diet culture, trying to do something we love in the bodies we have.

TL;DR: Food is more than fuel, you are more than a body, and life is more than sport.

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