Physique Sports & Eating Disorders

Is there ever an easy way to ask someone if their fitness goals are masking something worrying?

What came first; the chicken, or the egg (white)?  A large number of women who take part in physique-judged sports display disordered eating. But does physique sport trigger the disordered eating? Or does it attract people with latent food problems?

Let’s be clear: lifting weights and eating healthy is good for our health. Most people’s lives would improve if they lived a little more like a bodybuilder. But our physique sports – Bodybuilding, Physique, Figure, Bikini – take “healthy living” way beyond improving your health. And that’s where things can get a little worrying.

There’s a fine line between eating healthy, and having an eating disorder. “Eating clean” can look scarily like disordered eating. Especially when it’s held up on a pedestal and plastered all over social media.

2016 has mixed up the perfect storm: increased participation in physique contests, the massive boom in Instagram, and easy access to diet “advice” online. Body dysmorphia (an anxiety disorder that causes a distorted view of how you look) is rife. Not every woman who preps for a contest will suffer these thoughts, but a large percentage will. Estimates suggest that 42% of women who compete in physique sports show signs of disordered eating. And dieting can trigger previous disordered eating behaviour lurking beneath the surface.

Does “prepping for a show” make it difficult to challenge someone on their eating behaviour? How are you supposed to call someone out on healthy behaviour? They’re eating better, getting leaner, fulfilling a dream of getting on stage, right? Who are you to suggest that maybe, just maybe, this is sport-sanctioned obsession, not health?

Of course, not everyone who diets for a show has an eating disorder background, or will be triggered into disordered eating. Plenty of women can prep for a show, and come out the other side, with their heads on straight.

But what should you do if you recognize worrying behavior in your friend… or in yourself?

How To Spot Disordered Eating

Controlling behavior around food and eating (food timings, food amounts, routines, structures) and emotional distress when control is threatened.

Feeling out of control, as if the diet or food plan has taken over.

Negative feelings about your body.

Isolating yourself from people, social situations, and even from going out of the house.

Changes in behavior and character (withdrawn, depressed, not wanting to talk or connect with friends).

How Can You Stop Healthy Eating Becoming Disordered Eating?

Before you consider dieting for a bodybuilding, Figure, or Bikini show, be very honest about your previous and current relationship with food. Is it healthy and robust? Or have you ever had any disordered feelings about food and eating? Be honest about this before you even start.

Know your own “red flags” that suggest your eating issues are making a comeback. This could be obsessing over cheat meals, keeping lists of foods or restaurants, spending hours on social media looking at food porn, hoarding food to eat after your show, feeling ashamed or embarrassed about the way you eat.

Be prepared to step back, set a new goal, or even walk away from the goal completely. Your health comes first and is far more important than a trophy or even a Pro card.

Communicate honestly with friends, family, partners, coaches… and with yourself. People can only help you if they know what you are thinking and feeling.

Keep notes of how you are feeling. A journal is a useful tool. Seeing our thoughts and feelings in black and white is better than trying to remember.

Trust your coach or mentor: trust them to guide you in a healthy way, and also trust them with your honest feelings. If you don’t feel you can talk to your coach or mentor about ups and downs, they are not the right person to support you.

Diet smart. Being weak, dizzy, or light-headed is not healthy. Give yourself enough time to diet so that you can do it in a smart way.

Try not to be dogmatic or tribal about dieting. There is no one right or wrong way to get lean for a contest. Black and white thinking can lead to disordered thinking about food. Be open-minded, and don’t align yourself with any dietary tribe.

We need to look after each other. With so many people deciding to do a show, we all have a responsibility to keep an eye out for worrying behavior. There is a difference between wanting to be healthy, and risking that health for a trophy. Ask yourself: “is this really why I got into the sport?” And if the answer is “no”? That’s OK. Be proud of yourself, right now. Fitness is a lifelong goal and the true rewards will always be here for you: on or off the stage.

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