Diet Culture & Athletes

Since the beginning of humanity, people have been differentiated from animals through our level of self-awareness.  We know that we are people, that we have thoughts, and that we have self-determination.  Which can be really great.  But it also means that we are generally consumed with thinking about……ourselves.  Not super great, sometimes.  Especially when that thinking turns to judgement, criticism, and comparison.  There are a few markets that have really capitalized on our self-obsession, and turned non-existent problems into things that need to be fixed through products and paid services.  Because of the diet industry, and the effectiveness of marketing, so many athletes have been lead to believe that diet culture and sports have a symbiotic relationship.  But this is wrong.

The Intersection of Diet Culture & Sports

For a long time (longer than I have been alive), we have been told that healthy bodies have a certain look and composition.  Through targeted marketing and outdated “science,” we have received messages that support the theory that the health of one’s body can be evaluated based on its appearance.  This is useful when we’re looking at something like a rash or a missing limb; clearly these things are not healthy.  But it’s not useful when we’re just standing in front of the mirror, navel gazing and longing for abs.

It has since followed that because healthy bodies are generally those with less fat, those kinds of bodies will perform better when it comes to athletics. Especially if the body competing happens to be female; though men are certainly not excluded from the toxic party. This system of beliefs, that healthy means minimal fat and minimal fat means better athletic performance, has created a culture of athletes who are obsessed with perfection and control. Creating the ideal body composition through unwavering control over their diets.

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Realistically, humans shouldn’t need to control their diets.  Our bodies are built specifically to let us know when we need sleep, movement, food, and water.  But if you’ve spent years telling that body to shut up when your stomach growls or when you’ve got a 5am practice after a sleepless night, eventually those signals get harder to hear.  And it gets really easy to equate self-sacrifice and pain with success and motivation.

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But what if all of this is a crock of shit?  What if a ballerina can jump higher at 140 pounds than she can at 100?  Or what if a runner can cross a marathon finish line 2 minutes faster weighing 7 pounds more?  What if all that control and restriction doesn’t yield better performances?  Would we still idolize a person who can turn down Christmas cookies for the sake of sport? 

Turn out, we sure freaking do.

The Reality

Because the reality is that smaller bodies actually don’t perform better.  Are you more likely to be a stronger soccer player if your body is healthy and functioning optimally?  Yes.  But it’s not likely that your body is functioning optimally at 7% body fat, just like it’s not likely that your body is functioning optimally at 35%.  However, there is a really wide range in between that is considered healthy.  And chances are, for most athletes, the place that their body performs at it’s highest, probably doesn’t mean they’ll have visible abs.

In fact, well developed bodies have muscle tone, mass, and even some fat.  These bodies are generally strong, resilient, and well performing.  But do they all look the same?  The answer to this question and whether I will ever turn down a Twix is the same.  Abso-freaking-lutely not.  Because body diversity is a real thing, and different bodies perform at different levels at different weights and compositions.  Are there some runners who will run their fastest at 107lbs?  Sure!  And there are others who will run their best at 147! 

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And media right now is filled with examples of women who have given the diet industry the middle finger it deserves, and had better performances at higher weights. If you don’t believe me, check out Mary Cain’s story. So if we know that being underweight leads to issues like overuse injuries, stress fractures, and crappy recovery, why are we still so focused on controlling our diets? Well, vanity.

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Because the diet industry and sexism have combined evil forces to create diet culture.  And even though we have clear literature and examples that show us that low body fat doesn’t mean better athletic results, a lot of us still want to look a certain way.  And if we’re really honest, a lot of it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with performance.  It has everything to do with complex things like control and self-worth.  Things that are easy to manipulate and make a profit off of.

If Smaller Doesn’t Mean Better Outcomes, Why Are We So Obsessed?

Marketing strategists have found that there are few things that trigger emotional purchases; fear, time limits, and the compulsion that most people feel to be liked by others.  And one of the fastest way to get women to open their pockets is to make them feel inadequate, different, and undesirable.  And then offer them a solution to all of these feelings.  In the form of a diet pill, or a book, or a water bottle that optimizes the benefits….of water…..

We have been sold a bill of goods that tells us that if we can just physically force our multitude of body types into taking on the appearance of a size two caricature of a woman, we’ll suddenly feel confident, happy, and in control.  We will be the envy of our friends, and everyone will be able to see the results of our hard work and efforts.  It’s natural to want to feel physically attractive, but it’s ridiculous to think that we need change our entire physical composition and exercise control over our appearance in order to achieve that.

And what is the result?  Generations of women who believe that their perfectly natural bodies are wrong, and spend years of their life feeling unhappy with their perfectly healthy and functioning bodies.

Rejecting Diet Culture – A Roadmap

You may think that knowing and understanding this information is enough to change the way you feel about food, diet culture, and your body. But you’d be wrong. Because dismantling feelings that are the result of a litany of messages that you receive minute to minute isn’t an overnight deal. But with some realistic approaches, it’s definitely possible to start heading in a healthier direction.

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First, remember that there is power in the words you speak.  The words you speak about yourself and about others shape the way you think.  So even if you don’t believe it yet, say the things you need to hear.  Talk about the importance of body diversity and rejecting diet culture.  Recognize when you are judging yourself and others with your words, and then redirect those thoughts and words.  Don’t judge the judgement, simply acknowledge it and choose again.

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And then build your support system.  Follow social media accounts that embrace and support body diversity, listen to podcasts from experts in the field, and find ways to celebrate more diversity in what you see.  Consider enlisting the support of a good therapist to help you work things out, and if you’re struggling to relearn how to fuel your body reach out to a sports dietician.  I can’t recommend my friend Lindsey more highly if you’re in the market!

And for Gods sake, no matter what, fuel your body and keep working to embrace however it ends up looking.  10 pounds heavier, 2 pounds lighter, whatever it takes to be healthy and fueled.

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