As an athlete, everyone looks up to you thinking you have phenomenal health. People think you must have an incredible diet and exude an overall healthy lifestyle in order to perform at a high level. This unfortunately is so far from the truth, especially for female athletes. According to eatingdisorderhope.com, about 45% of female athletes struggle with an eating disorder! It’s tough to admit but I am definitely a part of that statistic. It may not seem like it because of the way my body looks, and the seemingly healthy diet I have, but I have been struggling with eating disorders and body dysmorphia for years. I have only just started to understand my problem with this which is why I am opening up about it. I want to share my story to bring awareness to the misconception that just because an athlete looks a certain way or performs at a high level, does not mean they are healthy.
My story has many different layers to it so I’ll try my best to organize this in a way that makes sense. Here it goes…
I have struggled and still am struggling with eating disorders. My problems trace back to when I was growing up but became most noticeable my freshman year of college and on.
I love food. I always have. It’s something that I can always remember that has brought me so much joy and excitement. I always looked forward to mealtime and fantasize about what I am going to eat next. Unfortunately, this extreme love for food has turned into a really unhealthy relationship. When I was younger, (elementary school until senior year of high school) I was able to stay skinny while eating an incredible amount of food. I used to pride myself and see it as a game about how much I could eat. People would comment on my large portions and ability to still stay lean. I took this as a great compliment and it fueled me to eat even more! I never worried about gaining weight because my metabolism was so fast and I stayed active. So even when I was so full I would push through and eat more. I basically ate to the point of extreme un-comfortability every day. Back then I did not realize I had a problem because I remained thin and I stayed extremely active being a 3 sport athlete. However, now I understand this was the start of my binge eating disorder.
My extreme eating eventually caught up to me. My freshman year of college I got my body fat tested as a requirement for being a student-athlete and my results came back saying I was obese… 32% body fat. When I heard that I was obese I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that I could be a college soccer player, working out 3 hours a day, eating relatively healthy, but be obese! I tried to laugh it off, but this really broke me inside because being skinny was something I always prided myself on being. I was recommended to go to a nutritionist but I took this as an offense because I genuinely ate healthy foods (I just ate a LOT of it). I never went to the nutritionist and looking back I really wish I did.
In high school, I would sometimes throw up after meals because I would eat so much food in one sitting. I never forced it, it just happened because I was so full. “I’m so full I can throw up right now” was a joke but it actually happened. Unfortunately, after the body fat test, I started purposefully making myself throw up. I did not know how to control my eating and so when I would over-eat or feel really full, I would throw it up.
It was a very confusing time because I did not know how to properly fuel my body. Back then I had a weird fear of being hungry. So, instead of listening to my body’s cues of hunger and fullness, I just aired on the side of “caution” and would over-eat so I wouldn’t get hungry later. Even though the food I was eating was healthy, I was over-eating constantly.
Thankfully, my bulimia did not escalate and I stopped forcing myself to throw up during my sophomore year of college. During the end of my sophomore year and beginning of junior year, a flip switched and I stopped eating like every meal was my last. I started listening to my body and ended up losing a lot of weight, in a healthy way! I was not even trying to do this, it just happened. And I didn’t even notice I was losing weight until people started commenting on how I looked.
I have always been told I have a nice body, but especially after losing that weight, I was praised for it. This then turned into my obsession with staying skinny and fit which has persisted until today. I became afraid of becoming “obese” again and judged my worth based on how my body looked.
So, unfortunately, my eating disorders and body dysmorphia continued.
Another factor that has caused my unhealthy food habits is my struggles with acne, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and hair loss (I’ll talk more in-depth about these in later posts). I have struggled with acne and irritable bowel syndrome since I was in elementary school, basically as long as I can remember. Over the years I have gone to doctors/dermatologists countless times to help cure these problems but nothing helped. This has led me to obsessively searching the internet to find solutions.
Restricting my diet to being Gluten Free, Keto, sugar-free, and Low FODMAPS are just some of the things the internet has told me will help my conditions. I attempted these diets and unfortunately, none of them helped my symptoms. Instead, caused unhealthy eating habits like restrictive and binge eating and a negative relationship with food. Because I love all food so much, it was so hard to stop myself from eating the “forbidden foods”. So when I would eat these foods, I would binge them and then feel extremely guilty for it.
Dealing with these health problems and my obsession with staying fit became a perfectly disastrous combination, leading to extreme eating habits that I thought at the time were healthy.
This is something that I recently struggled with while living in Spain and Serbia. Most recently, during the first part of my season in Serbia, I had the worst acne of my life. I was convinced that the food I was eating was causing my symptoms. The internet said that becoming Keto (low carb and sugar) would reduce my insulin spikes and therefore help my acne. I was desperate so I tried this and for the most part, I did not eat bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, and corn, avoided certain fruits, and tried to not eat sugar. I basically just ate protein and vegetables. And if I did eat carbs or sweets, I would spiral out of control and binge eat these, then feel disgusted with myself. It was so difficult because bread, potatoes, and rice are a huge part of the cuisine in Serbia (and Europe in general). Therefore, completely avoiding these foods was almost impossible. I also love these foods, so I really did not want to stop eating them! As a result, when I did end up eating these “forbidden” foods, I would lose it and decide to have a full-on cheat day, binging as many sweets and carbs as I could. All because I had a piece of bread or some potatoes…
During this time all I thought about was my acne, hair loss, food, and my body. I became even more obsessed with working out. My thinking was that my body had to look its’ best because my face did not. To make things worse, my soccer playing really declined during this period. I had no confidence on the field and had the worst season of my life. It was really embarrassing, honestly. I could not connect a pass for my life and second-guessed every move I made on the field. It made me question if I was even a good player anymore.
I really think my diet and mindset played a huge part in this. I was so worried about what I looked like that I was willing to do whatever it took to fix that problem instead of focusing on what was going to make me a better player. I over-worked myself off the field, under-ate, and had no confidence at all.
I decided that I was sick of feeling this way so I decided to get professional health with a holistic doctor. Thankfully she has helped. The first thing I did when I went back to the United States for Christmas break was get a food allergy test and blood pannel done. Turns out, I have NO allergies to foods. I have slight intolerances, but nothing to the point where I must cut a certain food out of my life. My years of insisting that gluten and carbs were the culprits causing my problems, was proved untrue in about a day. I felt so happy but also extremely confused. What could be causing my problems then?
Due to a couple other factors (I’ll get into them in a future blog post), I believe the WAY I was eating food was a main contributer to my problems. Binging a ton of sugar and snacks when I got my hands on them, or overeating at restaurants/cheat meals because I thought “this is my one time to do it”, definitely caused stomach problems and breakouts consistently.
THANKFULLY after getting my food allergy tests back, now I allow myself to eat all foods in moderation. I know that specific foods aren’t the sole reason for my problems. This new mindset has really helped limit my binge eating and created a healthier relationship with food. Because I genuinely love the taste of healthy foods, I’m starting to trust and listen to what my body is craving. If I’m craving toast with peanut butter, then I’m going to eat it and not feel guilty for it! It’s been so freeing not placing these restrictions on myself anymore and honestly my stomach problems and acne have gotten so much better! What a concept huh?
I’m also starting to play like myself again. I have a lot more confidence on the ball and don’t feel like a lost puppy dog running around the field. Thank god.
I absolutely still struggle with binge eating and body dysmorphia but I can genuinely say that I am so much better. I feel like I finally have control and am aware of my triggers.
Unhealthy Signs that made me realize I Have a problem
Poor Eating Habits:
- I’ll stand in the kitchen for long periods of time snacking on foods from the cabinets and fridge, instead of putting them on a plate and sitting down to eat them. My thought process is that “I just want a few chips”, but then I end up eating half the bag and didn’t even enjoy it because I was thinking about how I needed to stop the entire time.
- I eat when I’m bored, anxious, or trying to avoid doing something.
- When there are sweets in the house, I eat all of them because I want to get rid of them, so I don’t eat them later. Therefore, instead of having 2 cookies, I’ll binge eat 10 because I just want them out of the house so I can start eating “healthy” again.
- I feel bad leaving food behind, so I always eat everything that’s on my plate (and other people’s plates too!) even when I’m full.
“Checking myself out” in the mirror constantly: The first thing I do in the morning is go to the bathroom, lift my shirt up, and examine my stomach in the mirror. The first thing I do to start off my day is see how skinny I am. If I’m a little bloated or not looking the way I think I should, it immediately leads to a negative day where I am worried about the foods I eat because I think I am getting fat. I did not realize I do this until recently. But this is something I do and have been doing for years. I now have taken note that I actually go to the mirror and look at my stomach multiple times a day. I’ve found that I plan my meals based on how my stomach looks instead of the hunger I am feeling.
Thinking about food 24/7: When I am eating breakfast, I am thinking about what I’ll eat for lunch. When I’m eating lunch, I am thinking about dinner. And during dinner, I am thinking about the food I will eat the next day. At all times of the day, I am planning my food and if I eat something outside of my plan I feel guilty for it and spiral out of control.
Over-exercising: While living in Spain and Serbia, I got into the bad habit of going to the gym even when my body was tired and sore in addition to our soccer practices. I did this because I felt I needed to do two workouts a day in order to stay super fit, not gain weight, and earn the food I ate. However, I realized the gym workouts weren’t aimed to improve my game, but instead make my body look a certain way. As a result, my body became tired, not stronger, and my playing level dropped.
I also would go on really long walks to burn more calories and to get myself out of the house so I wouldn’t eat. If I was at home for long periods of time, I would consistently eat because I was bored. I really enjoy walking, but after two practices, walking 4 miles is not healthy. In addition, my lack of ability to control my eating at home was not healthy.
Stealing other people’s foods: I have always been very good at not buying junk food when I go to the grocery store. I have self-control in that way. However, when there is junk food in my house, I have absolutely no self-control, even when it was not mine. Living with a bunch of roommates in college and in Spain was torture sometimes because the house was always stocked with something sweet. Because I would try to restrict myself from eating sweets, I couldn’t control myself if I did get my hands on something sugary.
I would also like to take the time to apologize to all my roommates I’ve stolen from! I’M SORRY AND LOVE YA’LL!
Comparing myself to all my teammates: In my experience, being an athlete causes a lot more unhealthy habits than one may realize. For example, because you are surrounded by so many badass women, comparing yourself to your teammates is inevitable. Even if you don’t realize it, it subconsciously happens. For me, not only am I comparing my playing to my teammates, but also my body and what I eat. Wishing my legs were as toned or my arms were more muscular as some players’; every day is a constant comparison and the desire for my body to look differently. In addition, living and eating many meals with teammates has created the unhealthy habit of me constantly comparing my food portion sizes and what I eat to theirs. I notice the smaller portion size of my 5’3 teammate and get mad at myself for eating more than her when I am significantly taller than her and obviously need to eat more calories. Instead of listening to my own body (which is completely different than all my teammates!), I subconsciously mimic their food choices and feel embarrassed if I eat more food. Ridiculous right?
Thanks for reading this lengthy and personal post lol! My goal of this isn’t to give any advice, but rather to share my story to bring awareness. Eating disorders among athletes are something that is unfortunately rarely talked about even though it is incredibly relevant in this population. Like myself, many people don’t realize that their eating and working out habits are actually disordered and therefore, decreasing their athletic performance. I hope that if anyone reading this is also struggling with something similar that this gives them the courage to get professional help! Peace and love to everyone. Thanks for following and supporting me along my journey 💜