Poll: Have You Ever Struggled with Disordered Eating Habits?

TAGS: nutrition education, female eating disorders, eating disorder, Emma Jarman, female powerlifter, strength athlete


Less than a couple weeks ago I took a quick poll of women on my Instagram story: “Have you ever struggled with disordered eating habits? Yes or no.” Out of the 110 women that responded to the poll, 101 said “yes.” Ninety-two percent of the women who responded to my poll have struggled with varying degrees of disordered eating. Out of those 101, 70 are strength athletes in some capacity (not a single strength athlete voted “no”—100 percent of the female strength athletes who participated in my poll have either previously or are currently struggling with disordered eating habits) and agreed to answer a few questions regarding their disordered eating histories and habits. Told mostly in their own words, this is their story.

At first I was shocked by the number of “yes” votes. I rationalized, people with personal experiences with the issue are more inclined to answer—no one that doesn’t have issues with eating cares enough to say “no”—but that doesn't seem to be the case. I reached out to nutrition professionals working with strength athletes to see if this phenomenon was specific to my poll or accurately reflective of the community as a whole.

“Yes it does [sound accurate],” said Tony Montgomery, strength and diet coach of 12 years. “I think it is higher within our community because we have this ideal body type in our heads of what an athlete should look like. By going to these extremes and not truly knowing how to do it properly, we create eating disorders because it is not sustainable.” (Notice there is no mention of performance factors here. This is significant. The information I gathered points to body image and lack of formal education as a trigger for disordered eating but sport performance goals in strength sports as a mitigating factor. It is compelling to note he does not blame the sport for the disordered eating behaviors, only for preconceived aesthetic expectations.)

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Caylea Borges, a nutrition coach and powerlifter herself also agreed, though was mindful to point out disordered eating is not unique to sports and is likely statistically more prevalent in women due to societal pressure and an elevated attention to body image.

Megan Brasse, a 26-year-old personal trainer, coach, business owner, and Olympic lifter who used to make a game out of chewing and spitting food and gave her binging and purging habits a “cute nickname” said, “So many of my female clients, past and present, have struggled from some sort of [eating disorder]. I think we are going to talk about this more, which will allow females to understand they are not alone. It’s okay to look different than the girl next to you.”

Female feet on the scales, measuring tape

Sergiy Tryapitsyn © 123rf.com

Nutrition is peculiar as a study both in a clinical and casual sense in that it’s learned and unlearned, over and over again, through a lifetime. Slowly then all at once, repeat. And even when we think we know in absolutes and everything's, science changes, social preferences change, yesterday’s experts are left scrambling to realign their convictions with new truths of what’s newest and best. We absorb habits and perceptions all our lives, but it seems human intuition on proper nutrition doesn’t evolve as quickly as advertising campaigns, multi-level marketing (MLM or pyramid selling) diet plans and the hypersexualization and monetization of the female body, most prominently on social media.

“I was the type to listen to the women who said, "You shouldn’t get bulky, and shouldn’t take protein because it will make you manly,” said Taylor B., a 26-year-old retail associate and powerlifter who started starving herself in grade school.

“I followed a lot of bodybuilders in prep [that ate] the plain chicken, broccoli, sweet potatoes, etc. and thought that was the only way to eat,” said Jess D., a 28-year-old financial analyst and bodybuilder/runner who remembers starting her first extreme diet her senior year of high school.

We learn about nutrition from primary school health classes through the food pyramid and colorful plates. We learn about it from our friends and magazines in grocery checkout lines, our first tastes of restriction and fad diets. We learn about nutrition from our parents, whose eating habits we’ve mirrored since birth; from our friends’ parents, whose persuasions drip from the lips of their teenage daughters; from our “Hey girl!” friends who sold Herbalife, Advocare and It Works!; and of course, we learn about it briefly from the dated but steadfast food pyramid and BMI ranges in our middle school textbooks. But the things we spend our entire lives learning aren’t always necessarily the things we should know.

“I think disordered eating is something I learned from my mom,” said Sarah R., a 26-year-old social studies teacher and powerlifter. “She is always so damn worried about her size. Her mom is also obsessed with appearance. She always tells me that her mom and her would keep a little journal of all their calories a day and not eat over 800.”

“I watched my mom hate herself for years,” said Jessica D., a 31-year-old insurance defense attorney and powerlifter. “I watched my mom eat like a bird, so I did too.”

“My mother said I needed to stop eating so much and when I was at my smallest,” remembers Mykala G., a 25-year-old EMT who began restricting, purging and abusing diet pills at 13. “On our last trip in 2013 she saw me in a bathing suit and said I looked like a skank.”

While many women’s troubled relationships with food and nutrition were restrictive and tight, others fell into habits of overabundance they were taught as children, developing further unhealthy food-related coping mechanisms to balance developed and uncontrollable compulsions as adults.

“My dad definitely had a binge eating disorder now that I look back on things we just thought were fun,” said Jenna H., a 32-year-old hairstylist and powerlifter. “We’d have these things called munchie parties where we’d go to the grocery store and get whatever snacks we’d want and then watch sports and stuff ourselves. No kid needs to find out how many layers of Pringles and squeeze cheese they can stack and fit in their mouth at once.”

Across poll respondents, the average age range disordered eating behaviors first expressed themselves was in the preteen years around the 6th or 7th grade, though ages ranged from as young as 8 and up to mid-20’s.

Vomiting girl suffering from bulimia

Katarzyna Białasiewicz © 123rf.com

“I noticed having troubled relationships with food around the age of 12,” said Taylor H., a 27-year-old graphic designer and powerlifter who was diagnosed with a binge eating disorder at 16. “I was always the biggest girl of my friends, and in gym class we were forced to weigh ourselves and I was always 20+ pounds heavier than everyone else around me. [I wish I could have learned] why good foods are good and why bad foods are bad. Learn[ed] how the body works and digests food. Develop[ed] a positive relationship with food.”

Unhealthy relationships with food and nutrition spark from a multitude of sources in pre-powerlifting teenage girls, but most seem rooted in a combination of learned and acquired self-hatred. Allison S., a 27-year-old business risk and control professional and powerlifter, shared her disordered eating began as a strategy to get attention from boys she perceived didn’t like her dark skin or body, so she took control of the one thing she could. A handful of women credited magazines and normalized disordered behavior by classmates, and the pressure to fit into a size small from Hollister, because what’s important when you’re 12 isn’t yet tempered by intentional knowledge and body-positive experiences. Compounded on her yo-yo dieting, hyper self-critical parent, Jess D. had an abusive high school boyfriend who told her she should be more thin and muscular like his own mother. Many reported dieting with their parents every time a new fad hit the market. The strongest common thread, though, was a collective experience of dissatisfaction and self-loathing.

“My relationship with food, body image and weight was very unhealthy,” said Mary F., a 24-year-old online personal trainer and powerlifter who struggled with binge eating, anxiety and depression. “I thought I was fat at 117 pounds for years before I started lifting.”

“One huge turning point for me was a class picture I took in 8th grade,” remembered Rebecca R., a 42-year-old scientist and powerlifter/strongman competitor who started her first diet at 14. “ It was a full length shot where I was half sitting on something with my hands in my lap. My ass was spilling off the prop on which I was sitting. I couldn’t believe that I actually looked like that. Was I really that big? I got bullied a lot in school for being overweight.”

Julia L., a 23-year-old IT professional and aspiring powerlifter felt everyone around her was skinny and that adults looked down on her because of her weight. She started dieting and working out at 12 years old to lose weight. Justine R., a  26-year-old military officer and multi-strength sport athlete, experienced binging and purging, overexercising, anorexia and orthorexia in the name of whatever the current fad diet was after starting her first diet at 15 to feel better in spandex at volleyball practice. Lindsey R., a 25-year-old occupational therapy assistant, personal trainer and powerlifter, “needed” to be 125 pounds or less for dance, and at the age of 16 began to severely restrict her food intake, eventually developing a dangerous habit of late-night binge eating. Marrianna W., a 26-year-old former bodybuilder, started dieting at the age of 13 triggered by early physical development and her sisters calling her fat in sibling squabbles, which led to a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, binge purge type.

Somewhat surprisingly, very few respondents acknowledged their disordered eating to have stemmed from a particular or specific trauma in childhood. These were normal, happy, healthy girls whose prolonged exposure to body negativity, unsatisfactory levels of attention from peers and lack of nutrition education developed severe, damaging, harmful eating habits. The most common reported behavior by far by both athletes and the nutrition coaches who work with them is binge eating. Notwithstanding other inappropriate compensatory behavior, binge eating—characterized by the consumption of large amounts of food in one sitting and feeling that eating behavior is out of control—was or is experienced by 80 percent of survey respondents.

“Purging was my worst habit,” said Calea B. “Purging my food at a holiday party with family was my rock bottom.”

Text sign showing Stop Eating. Conceptual photo cease the activity of putting or taking food into the mouth.

Artur Szczybylo © 123rf.com

“There was a day when I ate an entire huge bag of homemade granola,” Jenna H. said. “I tried to stop myself by throwing it in the trash but that didn’t work. I just pulled it out. Then I threw the bag in the outdoor trash and pulled it out when I left for work that day. When I got to work I bought three cookies at the coffee shop next door, and then went to the gas station later and bought gas station cookies because I was too embarrassed to go back for more at the coffee shop. [...] When I got home, I asked my husband if he wanted to go get burgers and pie.”

“The worst was when I was eating late at night,” Taylor H. said. “[I was] sneaking in the kitchen while I was living at home, eating everything I could and then forcing myself to throw it all back up so I didn’t gain any more weight.”

“I ended up having a partner in crime through this who enjoyed [bingeing and purging] with me,” said Megan B. “It became this sick bond of enabling.”

A close second to binge eating was severe restriction, “fasting” or starving.

“The worst I ever got was a five-day dry fast while I was working out every day, with no food or water,” Justine R. said. “The last day I was so tired and so dehydrated I ended up just passing out on my bed. I woke up and immediately drank a Pedialyte, but I was physically sick for a week afterwards. I know then I had a problem, but I didn’t know how to fix it.”

Sarah R. vividly remembers the first time her previously long, thick hair began falling out in clumps in the shower from anorexia. Allison S. spent an entire day not eating at a friends’ sleepover, “That’s when I knew things were bad.” Many, many of the women reported having to “earn” their calories with excessive exercise or restricting their intake further on days when they didn’t work out as hard. There was also a collective sense of pride experienced when the girls were able to go long periods without eating, secretly pleased when hunger pangs hit, and feelings of accomplishment from hiding their habits from friends, family and teammates.

MORE: Becoming of a Female Powerlifter

“I was terrified to eat unless I worked out, which for quite some time was punishing cardio or about four rounds of Insanity” said Jessica D. “I was wracked with guilt if I did something terrifying like, you know, eat a PB&J. I thought I was fat, thought I was unlovable because I was fat.”

“I was secretly very proud of the fact that I had come over three full days without eating any food as a college athlete,” said a 26-year-old powerlifter who requested anonymity. “I was working out for 2+ hours a day [and] I would restrict calories to where I was eating less than 600 a day. I would write out schedules that gave me more on my lifting days. Typically lifting days I wouldn’t break 800 and on cardio days would be as low as 200.”

Most often, restriction and binging/purging were reported together, along with other inappropriate compensatory behavior. Respondents related suffered through cycles of binging, purging, restriction, laxative abuse, diet pill abuse, narcotic drug abuse, emotional eating, food obsessions, reward/punishments of foods, fear of certain foods, elimination of entire food groups or macronutrients, overeating, undereating, prolonged fasting, orthorexia, body dysmorphia, chewing and spitting and many others, fairly regularly through their teenage years into adulthood.

“I have check-ins with my bodybuilding coach on Saturday or Sunday so I will basically starve myself (800 calories or less) Tuesday through Saturday so my weight and body are ok for check in,” reported a 30-year-old cook and powerlifter/bodybuilder who, still active in her disorder, asked to remain anonymous. “Then, for one or two days I will eat everything in sight. I always purge on these days. If I 'cheat' during the week I will purge. My weight will fluctuate about 10 pounds from the beginning of the week to check in day. As long as I lose a pound a week I feel my week has been a success.” (Sound familiar, bodybuilders?)

Lindsey R. remembers, “Trying to eat under 1,000 calories a day and doing [up to three] hours of cardio per day, only to black out and have massive binges to the point where I felt so physically sick and disgusted that I would cry, repeating this cycle multiple times per week, at one point forcing myself to throw up after my binges until the point where my body would pretty much throw up on command if I ate too much.”

Though many women communicated they are recovering from their unhealthy relationships with food and nutrition with only emotional scars, a few were not so lucky. Disordered eating is a physical reflection of psychological angst, so the consequences can be tangible, corporeal and dangerous.

woman losing hair on hairbrush in hand, soft focus

Pop Nukoonrat © 123rf.com

“I was taking a ballet class and I started crying during barre because it was so hard to hold up my leg in a developpe,” said Chloe B., a 21-year-old biomedical engineer and powerlifter. “I was so weak from malnutrition that my lines looked great, but I could barely jump because the impact of landing hurt my joints so badly.”

Lisa B., a 37-year-old medical assistant and powerlifter diagnosed with polyphagia hypothyroidism, morbid obesity and excessive BMI, eventually participated in medically assisted weight loss and weight loss surgery to prevent future medical issues. A 21-year-old coach, student and powerlifter who asked to remain anonymous has very few memories of the peak periods of her disordered eating that stemmed from “getting gaslighted, terrorized and raped by the one who told me to go on stage.” Sheharah M., a 36-year-old auto claims adjuster, experiential marketing specialist and IFBB figure pro who never had any issues with food before her foray into competitive bodybuilding, continues to struggle with body dysmorphia, IBS and hormonal issues from her multiple show preps. Storm B., a 25-year-old athletic trainer and powerlifter cut a cast off her own foot so she could do cardio with a broken ankle.

“I lost the majority of my hair,” said Marrianna W. “I bruised very easily and also would suffer from very random injuries. Rock bottom was when I became delusional due to brain fog and got sent to the hospital.”

“October  2015 I had my first ‘attack,’” Megan B. shared. I was standing in the kitchen making breakfast and had such an intense pain in my gut that I had to go lie in bed. By the end of October, I was in the ER searching for answers. The pain in my gut was unbearable. I couldn’t lift. I couldn’t work (I was a server, and I ended up quitting my job because I couldn’t go in). I couldn’t do anything. I had multiple ER visits between October and December. I became bed ridden with orthostatic hypertension and tachycardia. I needed a stool in my shower, because I couldn’t stand long enough to take one. No one could figure out what was wrong with me. [...] I knew what was wrong. I was quite literally eating myself to death. I justified it by saying things like, ‘My aunt did this for years and never got this bad, so it can’t be the binging and purging.’ [...] I ended up getting a perfectly healthy gallbladder removed at the end of December 2015. I let doctors take a perfectly functioning organ from me.”

These cycles of unhealthy, learned behaviors surrounding nutrition and food, however, seemed to slow once the women “found” powerlifting. Giving their bodies permission to take up space and viewing nutrition as a catalyst to enhance performance in a community where it matters less what you look like and more what you’re capable of in any body type or composition was instrumental in defeating the habits that imprisoned these women since their early teenage years.

When asked about how powerlifting or weight training has affected their attitudes toward nutrition a few things were repeated with only slight variation by nearly every respondent: “Powerlifting saved me,” and, “It taught me to use food as fuel.”

Strength sports are unique in that they are typically individual endeavors with strong supportive community bases. They highlight physical capability without any consideration of aesthetics. In fact, many of the women were drawn to the sport because they perceived it to not only accept but celebrate the spectrum of body types found in the female gender. The presence of weight classes does not present a significant barrier to recovery from disordered eating, particularly in intermediate or advanced lifters who have trained confidence in themselves and prioritize physical capability over body weight. This new outlook on body weight was also reported to have a positive effect on knowledge-seeking activity regarding optimal nutrition for athletic performance, a phenomenon not specific to intermediate or advanced lifters. Though a few women who participated in the survey have yet to step on the platform, they are equally enthusiastic about their adjusted lease on dietary guidelines and performance-enhancing nutrition as their experienced counterparts, who continue to seek better understandings of how to use food to best fuel the advancement of physical capability and performance.

“I’m optimistic about the positive community that’s growing and supporting women,” said Mykala G.

Girls UGSS 2015-5787

"I am optimistic that strength sports will be able to help female athletes be proud of their bodies and nutrition and not see nutrition as something that needs to be rigid and daunting,” said Caroline J. “Women can be strong, powerful, and healthy in this sport while actually enjoying the food they eat and improving their relationship with their body.”

“Women are standing up for themselves/each other and are calling out problematic rhetoric in the fitness/wellness community,” said Sarah B., a 32-year-old personal trainer, high school strength coach and powerlifter. “Also, working with young women makes me incredibly hopeful. They know so much more than I did about nutrition.”

Yet another warming revelation in reading the hundreds of pages of survey responses was the effect social media had on attitudes toward nutrition in female strength athletes. Social media is a scapegoat for myriad negative attitudes about everything from dieting to body image to the fitness industry as a whole (rightfully so), but it seems female strength athletes tend to pan for gold and find it. Though many responses noted the promotion of unrealistic body types and junk science regarding nutrition, a select but surprisingly large group recognizes an enhanced sense of community and positive discussion.

“I follow like-minded strong women,” said Lindsey R. “Strong and well-fueled bodies are the norm and eating enough food is a topic that is actually discussed.”

“Social media has actually been a great tool for educating myself more about nutrition as an adult,” started Caitlyn M., a 30-year-old occupational therapist and powerlifter, “but I also think you have to be smart about what you read, do your own research and make informed, educated decisions about things because there’s also a lot of garbage out there.”

While women are certainly easily able to find disordered eating support (remember pro-MIA and pro-ANA sites?), it seems as we gravitate toward strength sports, our search habits change, the women we follow promote different, healthy, inclusive messages, and we listen.

Chloe B. said social media taught her about nutrition and how it relates to performance; That it is necessary to eat things like protein and carbs in order to feel okay and be able to train. Sarah R. curated her social feeds to feature creators and influencers that “look like me,” so she can continue to learn about fueling and nourishment including seeking and finding new recipes online. Taylor H.’s knowledge of nutrition grew through social media interaction, though she did experience hyper-awareness of her body type.

“Social media greatly affected me when I was younger,” said Caroline J., a GIS mapping technician and powerlifter who suffered from extreme food anxiety. “I know growing up the big thing that affected me was having a thigh gap. In recent years I have realized how much photoshop, phony diets and diet shakes control media and honestly how ridiculous it all is. I also feel like in this generation of social media there is a lot more transparency and support shown to women who struggle with their body image.”

“At first [social media] was one of those things that kept me in a downward spiral,” said an anonymous respondent, “but after finding the right accounts it’s honestly helped me to a whole new degree. It helps me explore nutrition and find others that experienced similar things to me.”

In general, all these women—ever-evolving female strength athletes who were once girls with disastrous relationships with themselves and food–are optimistic about future waves of young girls to have better relationships with themselves as women and strength athletes, thanks to the availability of sound and accurate nutrition information online. Though some pessimism was noted regarding the persistence of old mindsets and inaccurate media portrayals of “health,” the lion's share of attitudes were optimistic.

One final question that elicited little variation in response was, “Knowing what you know now, if you could say something to your younger self before your first diet, what would it be?” The answer was a resounding “educate yourself.” Booming echoes of sentiments of self-worth were also common, but the reverberant return was the wish for their younger selves to have sought and received healthier advice and information regarding nutrition.

Girls UGSS 2015-5791

Borges and Montgomery urge information seekers to be proactive, but mindful of the sources and quality of information.

“I do [think good, healthy nutrition information is readily available], but I also think there is equally bad information out there so it can be hard to figure things out,” said Montgomery. “I would like to see more studies on women alone so we can start to understand more about how there are differences between the sexes.”

(I will mention here, I looked for scholarly articles specific to nutritional requirements for female strength athletes. I found one. Just one. “Nutritional aspects of women strength athletes,” by Volek, Forsythe and Kraemer, published in 2006. I can’t even say there is a hole in the research, there just isn’t any research.)

“Yes, [good information is readily available],” Borges said. “People are becoming smarter and relying more heavily on science and the known fundamentals of nutrition versus their bro at the gym. I would like to see people continue to educate themselves and learn the fundamentals before relying on ‘online experts.’ Knowledge is an individual’s power.”

Reading the testimonials of these women, most of whom I’ve never met, some of whom confessed they’d told me more about themselves in those few pages than they’d ever told anyone in their lives, was powerful. I read every single email. I choked up or cried nearly every single time. Every new message that dinged to my inbox with that bolded subject line, “Disordered Eating Survey,” after expecting to get only a few responses and have to send a few follow up questions to tell the story I was hoping to uncover, left me overwhelmed with gratitude for the women that reached out to me–those 101 “yes” women in and offhanded and seemingly insignificant Instagram poll. I now have hundreds of pages of the story I thought I’d struggle to fill 1,000 words with. I’ve learned more about these women as individuals, as part of the strength community and as professionals, mothers, sisters, daughters, survivors than I ever expected and I am grateful to all of them for what they taught me. “We’re all in this together,” is cliché, but accurate. Remember, 93 percent of female strength athletes I spoke with have struggled or are struggling with a poor relationship with food and nutrition, embodied by an entire spectrum of disordered eating habits. No one is alone.

“[At 18-19 years old,] I don’t think I decided to diet,” said an anonymous respondent. “I just ate less. I got to 54 kg and looked awful. That was the first time I heard the words, ‘I don’t want to live anymore,’ in my head constantly.”

“I remember having the distinct feeling that she needed to stop what I was doing or I was going to kill myself,” said Rebecca R.

Yet here they are living, despite it all.

Eating disorders aren’t gunshot wounds. They don’t explode in an instant, they don’t always make noise, nor are they instantly painful and identifiable, with clear, fast and universal recovery plans. They’re cancers, developing at varying rates of speed, slowly and secretly over time, hidden, without an always specifically identifiable source, without a clear treatment or one-size-fits-all solution. Whether unreasonable expectations regarding body image were externally imposed or internally established, one thing can be certain: the coping mechanisms of disordered eating and resulting unhealthy relationship with food and nutrition based on misinformation and the demonizing of the almighty calorie are real, significant, impactful and universal among most female strength athletes. But what is also real, significant and universal in the same demographic is recovery; remission is possible.

Header image credit: Katarzyna Białasiewicz © 123rf.com

Emma Jarman is a Cleveland, Ohio-based mother of one, amateur baker and writer. In her downtime, she works full time in marketing. Emma’s athletic background is in swimming and running with a short stint as a figure competitor. She entered the powerlifting community in 2015 and has since earned multiple pro totals and a top 10 ranking in the 181-pound weight class.


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