Sunday, May 19, 2024

The not-so-secret cost of being superhuman: elite sport’s problem with disordered eating

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Elite sport has long been consumed with the idea of the superhuman. Pushing the capabilities of the human body to its extremes in the hopes of uncovering the blueprint to engineer bodies that can jump higher, run faster and endure longer. And, as professionalism has increased, so too has the optimisation of athletes’ bodies in the quest for peak human condition.

But recent revelations that former Australian women’s cricket captain Meg Lanning cut her international career short due to struggles with disordered eating have exposed some of the cracks that have long been forming in the elite sport system.

According to research cited by the International Olympic Committee in 2019, up to 19% of male and 45% of female athletes worldwide demonstrate disordered eating behaviours. While Lanning’s recent disclosure surprised many, she is far from the only athlete to have spoken out about these issues in recent years. From sprinter Jana Pittman, who revealed her own eating disorder had become wrapped up in achieving her sporting dreams, to swimmer Alicia Coutts, who called out routine body shaming in her sport, the list of athletes publicly confronting eating behaviours in sport has been steadily growing. Their revelations raise questions about unhealthy habits flourishing in an arena that many celebrate as the epitome of health.

Eating behaviours in elite sport fall across a spectrum, from optimised nutrition – in which an athlete is supported through a specially created plan for peak performance – through to clinically diagnosed eating disorders. The oft-murky grey area between is referred to as “disordered eating”, defined by the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) as “problematic eating behaviour that fails to meet the clinical diagnosis for an eating disorder”.

Former professional netballer Nat Butler (nee Medhurst) found herself in this grey area in 2010.

‘I struggled silently with all this for about four years’: Netballer Nat Butler developed a ‘very disordered’ relationship with food in 2010. Photograph: Matt Roberts/Getty Images

“I strongly felt that things would be a lot better for everyone if I wasn’t here any more,” she admits when reflecting on her mental state during this time. Despite being a World Cup-winning Australian Diamond in the prime of her career at 26 years old, she found herself without a place at her team, the Adelaide Thunderbirds, forcing an unexpected interstate move to the Queensland Firebirds. While she was relieved to be able to continue playing the sport she loved, her mental health suffered and she battled near-constant depression and suicidal ideation.

“I felt like I wasn’t in control of a lot of things and particularly the way I felt about myself,” she says. “But the one thing I knew I could control was exercise and food intake, so that’s what I did.”

While Butler was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, she is very aware that the behaviours she developed around food and exercise were not healthy.

“There was a lot of weight loss and I had a very disordered, unhealthy relationship with food,” she says. “My depression was significant and I struggled silently with all this for about four years.”

Sarah Coyte started falling into problematic eating behaviours when she became serious about cricket as a teenager.

“I was the kid who would order chicken and vegetables with no vegetables,” she says. “Then when I got a cricket scholarship at 17, I decided to get a gym membership and I started to eat a bit better. Really quickly I started losing weight and all my fitness results were going up. People were starting to notice and comment and I loved hearing those comments – the more I heard them, the more I wanted to train.”

Coyte continued to progress in cricket with selection into the NSW and Australian teams, but her relationship with food became more troubled when she sustained an injury from overtraining. Soon the anxiety about not being able to keep the weight off took over. She severely restricted her food intake, vomiting after every meal until a colleague noticed her behaviour and asked her if she had an eating disorder.

“That really made me confront it,” she says. “I had to contact the Cricket Australia doctor and seek some help, and then I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.” Eventually, Coyte found the high-pressure environment of elite cricket too difficult to cope with and made the decision to retire from the sport shortly before her 26th birthday.

‘It’s all entangled with the sporting system’

For Dr Sue Byrne – a psychologist specialising in eating disorders at the University of Western Australia – stories like these are unfortunately not rare.

“Eating disorders and disordered eating are common, even in the general population,” she says. “But there are some sociocultural groups that are at higher risk of eating disorders, and elite athletes are one of those.”

While there are genetic factors that contribute to an individual’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder, there are also environmental and neurological factors that play a role – and this is where athletes are particularly susceptible.

“There’s increased pressure on [elite athletes] to attain and maintain a particular body shape,” Dr Byrne said. “And neurologically, the people who are vulnerable to eating disorders tend to have certain characteristics – they’re often very driven, perfectionistic, competitive high achievers who want to play by the rules. And those are also the characteristics you need to be a good athlete.”

Recent reports that the AFL will not conduct body composition assessments, such as skinfold testing, on players under 18 were met with plenty of criticism. But despite the pushback from pundits, both Coyte and Butler believe these tests can be harmful.

“Skinfolds were always a big trigger for me,” Coyte says. “Back then especially, there were measures that seemed unachievable for different body types and different roles that people played.”

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“I remember [at] one of the clubs that I was at, we were having skinfolds almost every fortnight,” Butler says. “It was just accepted as part of the criticism and pressures that we had to deal with as elite athletes.”

Dr Georgia Black notes that a lot of existing data is based on studies of male athletes, with ‘only around 10% of sport and exercise research’ being female-only focused. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Dr Brooke Devlin and Dr Georgia Black from the University of Queensland’s School of Human Movement and Nutrition believe change in this area is starting to occur. With developments such as the release of the AIS position statement on disordered eating in 2020 and Swimming Australia’s guidelines for prevention and management of these behaviours in 2023, sporting bodies are beginning to realise this issue will not go away on its own.

“We are starting to slowly see a shift to what is monitored,” says Devlin. “For example, body composition [is being] assessed via DXA [dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry], so the focus is now more on monitoring bone health rather than percentage body fat … given the link between meeting energy requirements and improving bone mineral density.”

Black also notes that a lot of the existing data is based on studies of male athletes, which makes it difficult to tell whether current measures are effective or harmful for female athletes.

“Only around 10% of sport and exercise research since 2014 focuses on female-only studies,” she says. “We don’t know what we don’t know. However, anecdotally, it is clear we need to retrain some longstanding culture and beliefs on body composition monitoring.”

While attitudes continue to shift, stories like Lanning’s highlight that there is still work to be done. Dr Adele Pavlidis, a researcher with a focus on sociocultural issues in sport at Griffith University, believes it will require broad structural change.

“Sports are now acknowledging it and making investments, but the concern that I have is that it becomes a purely clinical thing,” she says. “It’s all about the individual. But it’s not an individual’s fault that they have mental health challenges like eating disorders, it’s all entangled with the sporting system.”

‘I don’t want other people to go through what I went through’

For Butler, just being able to have these conversations is an important step. She still finds this part of her life difficult to talk about, but pushes herself to speak out in order to help other athletes.

“I don’t want other people to go through what I went through,” she says. “I know that by talking about it, it might allow someone to realise that what they’re going through isn’t right.”

Sarah Coyte sits with her dog, Bonnie, at home in Sydney. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/The Guardian

Coyte, too, is passionate about the issue and wants to use her experiences to influence change. Since her return to cricket two years after her initial retirement, she has noticed positive developments such as skinfold tests and weight checks becoming optional. But she believes more can be done to make the elite sporting environment safer for athletes.

“You definitely have to eat well for your sport, but there are different ways to fuel your body, and they need to let athletes figure out what works best for them and trust that athletes are going to do that,” she says.

In the competitive world of sport, there will always be a push for constant improvement. It is the nature of the environment to continually move forward – records will be broken, new training regimes will produce athletes ever more skilled than before. As sporting bodies begin to acknowledge that the methods behind this pursuit of progress need to be better managed, the first change may be leaving behind the idea of the superhuman, and instead recognising – even embracing – that athletes are simply human.

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