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June 13, 2017

Binge Eating in Athletes: A Self-Care Wall?

by Rebecca McConville, MS, RD, LD, CSSD

Hitting a wall is a common term that resonates with many athletes as a feeling of sudden fatigue and loss of energy. This occurrence is caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles. As a result, the body is unable to maintain sufficient fuel to continue to engage in performance.

While performing, the body can adapt short-term to the lack of fuel and is able to activate other energy pathways to pick up where energy is lacking. However, the body’s ability to adapt to chronic depletion may look different. Athletes with disordered eating, specifically binge eating, often results from hitting a wall with self-care or self-deprivation.

Binge eating is characterized by both of the following:

  • Eating, in a discrete period of time, an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances.
  • A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode or feeling that one cannot stop eating.

With the demanding schedules of today’s athlete, there is little time to focus on what to eat and where to obtain the food. This leaves the athlete to consume much of their fuel in a short span of time. As the athlete becomes conditioned to this pattern, the body may begin to sync its hunger cues. This can become habitual and set-up the athlete for binge eating.

In addition, the athlete’s body demands nourishment for basic energy needs as well as recovery from strenuous training. There can be an increase in hunger levels creating an uncomfortable, ravenous feel which may also set-up the athlete for consuming more, including binge eating.

A key component of treatment for binge eating is self-compassion. The following combines common traits seen in athletes with the three principles of self-compassion by Kristin Neff and how it can be incorporated into self-care:

  1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment. Sport, in itself, may feel like the athlete is being judged for either personal performance or win/loss. Encouraging the athlete to a place of self-kindness, as they would their teammate or friend, is important.
  2. Common humanity vs. Isolation. Struggling with being human versus a superstar athlete is common. The athlete needs to be encouraged to find balance between the amazing feats he or she is able to accomplish and the need to meet his or her basic human needs. Olympians, no doubt, still enjoy a treat and yearn for a movie on the couch.
  3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. The athlete should be aware of identifying statements such as “I am a runner and therefore should eat…”. These leave the athlete to follow certain eating rules, rather than being mindful of his or her physical and psychological needs. Eating mindfully, at regular intervals throughout the day, is good self-care that contributes to good health.