It’s distressing that so many athletes have food issues

Isobel Pooley’s enforced absence from the athletics scene this summer provided her with time to look inwardly at herself and work through her personal demons. Here, in an in-depth analysis, the former British high-jump record-holder and Commonwealth Games silver medallist speaks out about the problem of under-eating and food anxieties that can affect athletes, male as well as female. She believes the women worry too much about how they look in a crop-top rather than concentrating on how they perform during competition

Sometimes there are things you want to say but can’t or don’t know where to begin. But sooner or later things come to a point where you simply can’t stay quiet any more. The thing that’s pressing on my mind at this moment is the high prevalence of under-eating and food anxiety in athletes.
It’s fair to say that I’ve had a lot of time for reflection this summer. Missing the Olympics gave me the chance to consider my identity and my outlook beyond the narrow world of the high jump. Five months on from being diagnosed with a stress fracture, my injured ankle is healing. More importantly, though, I’ve made valuable progress in terms of my mental wellbeing.

Taking a step back from sport has given me some perspective on how sport has shaped me as a person, both physically and psychologically. Being an athlete has played a big part in my life up to this point and has given me some wonderful opportunities I could never have dreamt of. However, the pressures associated with being a competitive sportsperson have skewed my sense of normality and led me to some extreme eating behaviours which could have been very detrimental to my overall health.

I am not alone. It’s shocking how many athletes (of both genders) are in an almost constant state of worry about their food intake and body composition. Having spent a lot of time worrying about food myself, I know first-hand how concerns around diet can take over an athlete’s thoughts and undermine their self-worth. Anxiety about body fat can become a burden that dominates and spoils the overall pleasure of being a sportsperson.

Isobel Pooley photoshoot, uk - 2 November 2016
Photo credit: Olly Stabler

I feel it’s important to say that there’s absolutely no shame in becoming hyper-aware of your weight – I believe that it usually originates from the best of intentions. I think that obsessively controlling food intake often stems from a strong desire to do the right thing and to be the best. As sportspeople we’re totally committed and willing to do whatever it takes to reach the top. Appearances generally make us think that being leaner equals better performance, so that’s what we strive for. Looking around at our team-mates and rivals, we want to be in good shape and not be the one who isn’t taking care of themselves in the right way (ironic, and you’ll read why later). In high jump it’s easy to get caught up with trying to be skinny, especially when the kit is so revealing.

I think athletes tend to latch on to the goal of being lean very readily. Radically cutting down our food intake feels like a positive action to make a change and become a better person. We’re usually very harsh self-critics too and will often give ourselves a very hard time if we stray from the plan or the target. Couple this with the fact that we don’t discuss our food uncertainties openly and you can end up feeling like a failure while assuming the top performers never have “bad food days” or insecurities themselves.

Talking about it can really help. We’re all human, we all want to do the right thing and none of us know exactly what we’re doing. I’ve experienced the elation that comes from having a really honest conversation with other high-jumpers about what they eat and the relief of confessing my own “failings” and having somebody say, “Oooh, me too!” Likewise, I’ve seen somebody with an enviable body tuck into a hearty meal and their world not ending (and them not becoming immediately fat).

Across society, we’re bombarded with ideas about body shape, healthy eating and self-image. The media can distort the truth so we feel under pressure to conform to unrealistic expectations.

Within sport, we have the additional considerations of optimum body composition and ideal athletic appearance. It’s common to find an extreme aversion to body fat, which can be spurred on by old adages like “fat don’t fly” and the apparent links between minimal body fat and elite performance in many sports. Fat can end up seeming like a disgusting, shameful enemy while lean people can be inspirational, aspirational figures. The truth is, however, that how somebody looks on the outside does not necessarily mean they’re healthy – health is not just physical but mental and social, too.

In fairness, keeping a check on extra weight is a good idea for society in general – you can’t ignore the wider narrative that we are an increasingly obese nation. However, most sportspeople are already at the low end of the body fat spectrum and further efforts to drop weight may put them at risk of becoming too lean and developing an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s with this relationship that I think many of us could do with some help.

The universally-understood way to lose weight is to reduce your daily calorie intake. The big problem is that not taking in enough calories can lead to a shocking range of health issues, psychological stress and harm to performance. Athletes who create an energy deficit to lose weight (i.e. eating fewer calories than they burn) need to be extremely careful and seek professional advice if possible.

I’ve been reading up on RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport), which is when an athlete isn’t taking in enough energy to meet the body’s requirements. This can be caused by excessive energy expenditure, low food intake or often both. The body is therefore compromised and cannot function as it should do. RED-S is known to decrease muscle strength and endurance, response to training, concentration and co-ordination. The risk of depression can be increased, as is the prevalence of injuries.

ben-booth-1Additionally, female athletes often lose their menses/periods. This is a huge and very important (albeit very personal) subject. In brief, loss of menses sometimes indicates an insufficient calorie intake, something which can cause harmful effects throughout the body. Thinking about it, it seems pretty logical that, without sufficient calories, the body shuts down the reproductive cycle to save valuable energy for other essential processes. While not having monthly periods may be convenient, long-term it poses a big risk to bone health and mental wellbeing.

Reading these scientific papers during my research was the wake-up call I needed. I was appalled to find that I fit some of the criteria for RED-S myself. I realised that, although I would never intentionally harm my body, it was likely I hadn’t been eating enough calories for my body to be truly healthy. This had gone on for several years, on and off, since I moved away from home in 2011. Now I’ve come to the long-overdue conclusion that I need to eat significantly more every day in order to give my body the chance to heal and operate at full capacity. It’s startling how I’d been so single-minded in my determination to be thin that I’d ignored many warning signs and lots of helpful advice along the way.

Food is a very personal thing, which means it can be really hard to help somebody who’s struggling with eating issues. Many things can trigger the start of disordered eating and sadly even something which starts off as harmless can grow into a huge issue that affects your whole life.

There is something horribly satisfying about controlling your food intake, and in the smug feeling you can get from eating “more healthily/cleanly” than others around you. There’s also a pressure to keep up with others on Instagram and other social media platforms. We see other people showing off their perfect bodies and perfect lifestyles without questioning whether this is the complete picture.

An excessive urge to control food intake is a typical feature of anxious athletes. Even if we give ourselves a “cheat day” it won’t solve the problem as it’s still a form of control. I wish it was as simple as just being able to instantly relax about how much I eat, but it’s not. Just as I have learnt to limit rigidly what I eat, I now need to learn to be more generous and kind to myself and listen to what my body wants, not what my insecurities crave. I can’t pretend I haven’t been jealous of those people who eat what they like when they like and really, honestly don’t care (do those people even really exist anymore?!).

One thought that really struck me as I was lying in bed (thinking about my day’s food and trying to work out how much of a hard time I needed to give myself about it) was: “Is it still healthy eating if you’ve got a disorder about it?” I think not somehow.

I have a theory that people generally criticise themselves a lot more harshly that others would criticise them, especially when it comes to body image. This contributes to individuals’ anxiety about not fitting the “ideal” mould for their sporting event.

We don’t necessarily see a true representation of ourselves, either. Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is defined as “an anxiety disorder that causes a person to have a distorted view of how they look and to spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance”. It affects both men and women and is linked to social anxiety, depression and, unsurprisingly, eating disorders. Persistent and intrusive negative thoughts about your appearance are common features of BDD (again worryingly familiar).

In real life this means standing in front of the mirror and inwardly criticising your reflection, pinching your (tiny) love handles, looking at the folds in your stomach when you crunch over (that everyone has) etc, etc. It’s difficult but you have to realise that these faults are not necessarily even real. It’s likely that other people would never notice them or ever, ever comment upon them. For example, in a competition I’d hope that nobody would be checking for a muffin top – since they will be hopefully be too busy watching me perform incredible athletic feats that other people (no matter how fat or thin) could ever hope to do. However, out there in a crop top it’s hard to be so confident.

If you’re in the grip of disordered eating it can be easy to lose perspective on the other parts of performance which are just as influential as body shape. Whatever size you are, the two most important factors are to be healthy and to have done the right training. Under-eating will undermine both of these objectives.

Sometimes a strong desire to lose weight can be triggered by the insensitive comments of others. However, it’s essential to realise that most people are actually on your side and want the best for you. Therefore it can help to consider what the demands are of you, apart from body shape. For example, I know that my coaches want me to turn up to training full of energy, properly recovered and with the mental robustness to tackle big sessions again and again. They don’t want a worried, pale, pre-occupied athlete – even if I’m getting “impressive” skinfold measurements.

Training when you’re not eating enough is a very risky game as it can be traumatic both physically (increased injury risk) and emotionally (your body has nothing to give even if you want it really badly to work).

It’s hard to find the right words for some of this, and I firmly believe that the “Shut up, you’re not fat! Don’t be stupid” approach will almost never work. Eating is an intensely personal and private thing in many ways – nobody can do it for you! It’s scary how I managed to ignore good advice over and over again, listening to my inner fears and prejudices instead. I haven’t been able to fully accept myself because I was judging myself so harshly about getting fat/having fat/eating what I like. I had drawn the conclusion that eating too much would make me a very unprofessional athlete, without realising that eating too little could be far more damaging.

When I find out that one of my friends is unhappy about food it really upsets me. To know that someone I care about is tearing themselves apart inside about bodyweight and/or dieting makes me wish I could do something to help. I find it very distressing that a large percentage of performance athletes are likely to have issues around food.

The worst part is that on the surface the people suffering can be the most amazing, lean, enviable and outwardly self-assured individuals. It goes back to the old saying about never judging a book by its cover. It’s useful to realise that just because somebody looks good, or is performing well, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily healthy. Losing weight can help performance in the short-term, but the health risks mean it’s simply not worth it in the grand scheme of things.

Don’t imagine that I haven’t thought twice about sharing this much about my recent personal epiphany. It would be easy to stay silent, gloss over this episode in my life and pretend I never had an issue with food. However, I feel compelled to speak out and start a conversation about what lies beneath the surface in many sports. If I succeed in my goal of making high-jump history, I want people to know how I got there. I hope that reading this will help to bring the subject of under-eating out into the open and make some people realise they are not alone in their secret misery.

What I’m really trying to say is that there’s no shame in being confused and anxious about food – it’s a bewildering world out there! Under-eating is very common in athletes, but it can be overcome once you can see it for what it is. For me, at least, the point of being a sportsperson is to make the most of my life and enjoy what I do. I’m determined to overcome the physical and emotional stress that has tainted my recent past and I am looking forward to a future without fear.


Isobel Pooley is a British track and field athlete who specialises in the high jump. Isobel’s latest articles.

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