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The Trouble With “Healthy Eating”

Nutrition is a powerful tool to help athletes improve their performance. So often the nutrition advice told to a gymnast sounds a lot like “eat healthy” or “eat clean”. And while the intentions behind these messages are likely good (most often are meant to insinuate that an athlete should eat more whole foods, more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, unsaturated fats, etc., which is the backbone of a solid performance nutrition strategy), it is so easy for a young, dedicated, type A athlete to take these vague messages the wrong way, to an extreme, or implement them in an unhealthy, unrealistic, unsustainable way.

When does eating “healthy” become problematic? When does it become dangerous?

There is not a distinct line between being conscious about nutrition and an obsession with "clean" eating. It is not dangerous to focus on your nutrition and what you are fueling your body with. However, this becomes concerning when it turns into an obsession. Often when eating disorders are discussed, we paint a picture of someone diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia. But, these are not the only diagnosable eating disorders. Additionally, eating disorders do not have to be clinically diagnosed to negatively impact your performance in sport and your life.

Orthorexia is an eating disorder that (although not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5)) is recognized by mental health professionals, and awareness of it is rapidly increasing.

Orthorexia refers to an obsession with proper or “healthy” eating. The key phrase here is obsession. Being aware of what you are eating and being conscious about the nutritional value of your food is not usually a problem in and of itself (for most). However, the fixation and obsession with an unrealistic standard of “healthy” and “clean” eating can become problematic and can eventually lead to a major decline in performance, physical and mental health issues, and malnutrition.

Starting to cut out foods and food groups can cause nutrition deficiencies and what began as an attempt to eat “healthier” can morph into something very dangerous and harmful. There can be cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal and endocrine consequences to orthorexia. To understand more about the health consequences of orthorexia, you can read more from NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association here.

Orthorexia is problematic when you are so concerned and worried about the food you are consuming, that it interferes with your quality of life, health, and ability to engage in daily activities, especially ones that revolve around eating. Orthorexia usually pertains to an obsession over the quality of the food (not the quantity, as in more commonly discussed eating disorders).

Orthorexic tendencies are extremely common and prevalent both across our society as a whole and especially in the world of gymnastics. But, just because many of these behaviors are common, does not make them normal and does not mean they aren’t disordered. Navigating the world of “clean” and “healthy” eating can be confusing, especially for a young person. The internet and social media is full of misleading information preaching about “good vs bad”, “clean”, “unprocessed”, and “pure” foods.

If you are concerned that you might be struggling with orthorexia, a few questions to ask yourself include, Are you …

  • Constantly checking the nutritional labels on your food as a means of determining if you can or cannot eat it?

  • Cutting out more and more foods (especially ones you like) because you believe they aren't “healthy” or “clean” enough?

  • Only eating a select amount of foods, and completely eliminating entire food groups?

  • Worrying about food all day long?

  • Finding yourself unable to eat at restaurants or food prepared by someone else because you have anxiety over how the food is prepared?

  • Finding yourself unusually interested and concerned about what others are eating?

  • Struggling to understand how all foods can fit into your fueling plan?

  • Having an obsessive interest in social media content about “healthy” lifestyles?

  • Obsessing over healthy eating to a point that it affects your daily activities and social life?

  • Overly worrying about food that isn’t “pure” (ex. if the food contains artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives)

If you are familiar with the information I typically share, you know how much I believe in the importance of eating enough and providing your body with the nutrients that it needs to perform your best. Providing your body with the fuel it needs also requires balance, flexibility, and moderation. For those struggling with orthorexia, it can be hard to find this and find a middle ground with your fueling plan. Eating a balanced plate filled with foods from all the food groups is important, but so is enjoying the treats you want, going to a restaurant and ordering the meal you want, or enjoying a random snack with friends. Balance is important, and if you find yourself afraid of this balance, it may be time to reach out for help. Orthorexia is a serious disorder that requires professional help.

Gymnasts, I know you have big goals both in and out of the gym. A successful practice is reliant on your fueling practices. Providing your body with ENOUGH fuel… from ALL of the food groups, being able to focus on things other than what you ate (or what you’re going to eat next) or didn’t eat, and being in a good mental space can make all the difference in and out of the gym.

The world of nutrition is not black or white - we constantly live and eat in many shades of gray. Remember, there is no such thing as “good” and “bad” foods, nor are you a “good” or “bad” person or gymnast for eating or not eating something. Instead, I encourage you to ask yourself how the foods you eat make you feel, both physically and mentally. How was your energy at practice after eating the food? How did the food feel in your stomach? Are you content and satisfied by the meals and snacks you are eating (or are you constantly craving something else)? Examining how you feel can help you choose the right foods for you. For example, if a burger and fries makes you feel sick at practice, that might be your body telling you that this might not be the best choice for a pre-workout meal. This does not mean that you should cut burgers and fries out of your diet completely. It just means that it might not be the most optimal choice for before practice and instead it might be a better pick after practice, or on a day off.

ALL food can be fuel for gymnasts. Choosing what to eat can be confusing and overwhelming, but at the end of the day it is important to listen to your own body and what works for you.


Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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