It’s been a month or so, and I feel like it’s a good time to continue on with my eating disorder story. If you remember in my introductory post, I talked about how my coaches’ food and body comments made me, as a young gymnast, very aware of the size and shape of my own body, as well as my teammates’. I am not sure how this played into my relationship with food in the years to come, but let’s just say; it was less than perfect.
I was an extremely picky eater. In my early school years I lived off of grilled cheese sandwiches and tortilla chips with cheese. My parents could rarely get me to eat anything else. Honestly, I cannot remember if this continued throughout middle school, but what I do remember is extreme changes in my body. My sister and I were both very big into horseback riding and competing; going to different horse shows every weekend…. And we were both very successful. So, the summer after winning Grand Champion at our 4-H fair between my 7th and 8th grade years I decided to quit gymnastics, to focus more on showing my horse. It didn’t take long for my body to start changing.
In gymnastics, I was always one of the shortest and thinnest. It was normal at the gym, but at school I was made fun of for being thin, having no chest, and for my six pack abs. Things quickly changed after quitting gymnastics; I grew up (literally), a little bit around, and my chest started developing. Actually, as I write this I can remember one night lying in bed and telling my dad “my stomach is still flat when I lay down”. I don’t remember my eating habits changing much, except that I ate more overall. Heck, I had more time to eat because I wasn't in the gym 16 hours a week. My body was growing and developing; now I know it needed the calories and nutrients.
When I recollect things changing a little bit more was when I started high school. I actually got back into gymnastics, competing on my high school’s team. I also joined the diving team and continued my horseback riding and showing. Gymnastics was quite a bit more difficult because I was bigger and not in as good of shape. There were also boys in high school. And there were lots of means girls. And these two groups seemed to notice everything about each other. As cliché as it sounds, I do remember wanting to fit in and be popular, so I listened and I noticed things as well. Girls and boys talked about each other, especially what their bodies and faces looked like.
High school is not when my clinical eating disorder started; however, I did dabble in restricting and my eating habits were less than stellar. Some days I didn’t eat breakfast; reasoning that I didn’t have time. Other days, I skipped lunch and would eat 3 for $1.00 cookies from the school store instead. And I never even thought about a pre-workout snack or meal, because I would have rather died than look bloated in my leotard or swim suit. Needless to say, I was not fueling my body correctly for the amount of activity I was doing. I stayed pretty thin throughout high school and a lot of girls commented on how much they envied my body…. little did they know how much I hated it. I still wanted to be that tiny skinny gymnast I once was. I hated my hips and the cellulite on my thighs, and especially the breasts I thought were too big for my body.
It is not normal or okay for a sixteen year old to have such a poor body image and misunderstanding of food. If you are a parent, coach, or friend of a teenage athlete and are worried about their eating habits, here are some warning signs that they may be struggling and could use some help:
A large percentage of the people I work with now are teenage athletes. They are one of my favorites to work with, because they are so ready to learn and apply what we discuss. I help these athletes understand how to fuel their bodies for performance and teach them that “dieting” is not the answer now or ever. I also incorporate intuitive eating into my practice; teaching them to take pleasure in food and to choose nourishing food without using restriction. My number one goal with these athletes is to help them develop a good relationship with food to avoid disordered eating now and in the future.
As a sports dietitian, I am constantly asked by the athletes, teams, and other active individuals that I work with “what supplements should I be taking to improve my performance?” The answer I volunteer back is never a popular one – NONE!
This is especially true for the young athletes that I work with. Due to ethical reasons, the majority of the research surrounding dietary supplements and ergogenic aids has been on adults, not on young athletes. Many parents and coaches I work with are quick to suggest supplements to their athletes, but this is not acceptable. The research just does not support supplement use in young athletes, and due to lack of understanding these products, it is not clear how these youngsters’ bodies will react when taking them.
So, what is the difference between dietary supplements and ergogenic aids? Per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dietary supplements are ingested products that contain a "dietary ingredient" intended to add further nutritional value to the diet. These products can be vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, concentrates, etc. Ergogenic aids are techniques and products that are intended to enhance the ability to perform. These items include carbohydrate loading, training at altitude, caffeine, protein powders, muscle builders, pre-workouts, sports drinks, and protein bars. However, this also includes products like Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and anabolic steroids, which are highly unsafe.
Another reason I am so adamant about young athletes not using supplements or aids is because if they go on to play in the NCAA, every product is highly regulated and most are banned. In addition, the NCAA holds the athlete accountable for anything they choose to ingest, so if a banned substance shows up on a drug test, there is little leniency. Although the supplement industry is demanding and this topic is extremely confusing and ever evolving, there are some resources that can help young students understand what is safe and what is not.
If you are not familiar with the Taylor Hooton story, you should read it here. It will make you think twice before suggesting supplements to young athletes. So, what is safe for student athletes? When counseling athletes that inquire about supplements I always take a food first approach!
The goal is always student athlete welfare and keeping young athletes safe. Therefore, the strategy should always be to assess the diet first, then fill in the gaps with the proper nutrients from real food. If you are a student or parent that has questions about supplements do not hesitate to reach out to me directly at Allison@altnutrition.net.
Allison Tropf, MS, RD, CSSD
Allison is a Sports Dietitian in Michigan. She enjoys helping others reach their nutrition and fitness goals through reliable and trustworthy recommendations.
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