Athletes are known for going above and beyond when it comes to exercise and eating habits in hopes of achieving even bigger performance gains. While improving healthy habits is a great goal for everyone, it is possible to take this too far, which leads to orthorexia nervosa, a condition involving an obsession with healthy eating.
In the current social media atmosphere that idolizes the sharing of unrealistic goals, the pressure to be at your best is at an all-time high. The hashtag ‘#fitfoods’ has more than 11 million posts ready to influence athletes on how to eat to get the gains they’re after. This ‘#fitspo’ is meant to be a motivating factor, but it can backfire and trigger an obsession around not being good enough and having to go even more extreme.
EATING DISORDER OR DISORDERED EATING
While most people know anorexia and bulimia, there are many degrees of disordered eating that can have just as serious ill effects on health. Although orthorexia is not formally recognized as a diagnosed eating disorder, it is considered a form of disordered eating. Disordered eating falls short of being a true diagnosis, but depending on the severity of individual cases, disordered eating, including orthorexia, can fall under the diagnosis of Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), meaning there is a clear medical concern, but the habits fall outside the standards of anorexia and bulimia.
While the definitions of eating disorders can be narrow and confusing, the practice of disordered eating can take a serious toll on one’s health. Orthorexia refers to disordered dietary views and eating tendencies that stem from an obsession with being healthy.
Habits associated with orthorexia might include:
- Obsessively fixating on healthy diet trends and social media expectations
- Idolizing specific foods labeled as ‘clean’
- Feeling high stress and anxiety over food choices
- Not eating in public situations
- Strictly banning foods viewed as unhealthful
- Constant preoccupation with thinking about what to eat
- Citing health beliefs as a reason to avoid certain foods
For example, one might decide to call themselves a vegan as a way to avoid scrutiny about making overly strict food choices in public. Another example might be to only drink green juice over solid meals due to a belief it is healthier or take a bite of a ‘bad’ food such as cheese pizza in public, only to spit it out before swallowing. Practices associated with orthorexia are broad and crossing the line from eating in a positive, health-focused manner to obsessed fixation is blurred.
ATHLETES AND ORTHOREXIA
Since many athletes follow a strict nutrition protocol to boost recovery and performance, they’re more likely to explain away their obsession with healthy eating. For that reason, they are more likely to suffer from disordered eating practices such as orthorexia.
Research indicates those studying exercise science are more at risk for this condition than those studying business. One study found 35% of athletes involved in aesthetic sports suffer from disordered eating. Most of this disordered eating can be labeled as orthorexia as it stems from an extreme aspiration to obtain or maintain an overly healthy image.
What begins as a simple desire to improve body image and performance through diet can easily spiral into an obsessive, harmful practice. Excessively limiting food choices is likely to lead to energy, vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can result in low bone density, fatigue, poor recovery, inability to meet performance metrics, weight fluctuations, high stress and even depression. One study found athletes who reported disordered eating were 8 times as likely to suffer an injury as their competitors with normal eating habits. This highlights the dangers associated with disordered eating.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A good way to think about whether your eating behaviors go beyond healthy is to be mindful of your feelings toward how you eat. If you spend a large amount of time thinking about, controlling and being stressed over food intake, you might be headed into dangerous territory.
Any athlete who feels their diet has veered off course from healthy to risky and obsessive should seek help from their support system before suffering the potential effects of long-term disordered eating. NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association is a great resource for anyone looking for more information on the topic.