Picture this: you’re a NCAA Division I student-athlete who spends over 25 hours a week at practice… and you’re struggling with an eating disorder (ED). You have practice every morning at 7am, and you run anywhere from 4-14 miles… you eat as little as possible afterward. You go to class and then back to your second practice of the day and run some more… and you think about what food will be most beneficial to eat so that your legs don’t get too shaky during weight room. Then you finally go to dinner at the dining hall… and you spend all your time online looking up the nutrition information for every item at the buffet. You repeat that day for weeks or even months, and ask yourself why you never have time for other things and why you’re so tired and unhappy.
That was my life in college. A horrible cycle of falling in and out of that pattern for years. I spent a long, long time being torn in half by my sport and my eating disorder.
At the time, the cycle felt impossible to break.
Gradually, I learned how to be happy again. Once I started seeing a psychologist, I was able to get help and express the pain I’d been feeling. Slowly but surely, I saw the return of the “old” me. It didn’t happen overnight, in a week, or even a month. It’s still ongoing, but I began noticing the smallest things as victories. My college coach used to preach, “it’s the little things that make big things happen.”
So I got tools from a psychologist and my support from friends and family, and I started to mend everything on the inside—piece by piece—that had felt broken for so long. At first, a victory was something as minimal as “I ate a full breakfast with my team after practice,” or “my hands didn’t shake at all during weight room today.” But they build on each other. Small accomplishments like that transition into “I didn’t look at a single nutrition facts label all week,” to “I don’t know how much I weigh because I stopped using my scale.” It was all about knowing that there was a win in each of these steps. The greatest feeling in recovery came when I finally reached all these steps and I was no longer just checking things off a list that the dietitian gave me, but I was actually OKAY with taking these steps—both on an emotional and mental level.
Then came one of the most momentous steps in my own personal recovery. I was able to go for a run and not think about the calories I was burning according to pace and mileage. I wasn’t basing my run on which foods I had eaten that day, the calories would be “canceling out.” I was just running—for fun, for me. With lots of time spent working on my recovery process, and myself, I was able to mend the horribly fractured chain that linked me to my ED on one side and my sport on the other.
Since that day and the moment I realized what an accomplishment that run was, things haven’t always been perfect or smooth. Anyone who has been through a similar relationship with food knows that recovery is a messy, ongoing battle. Some days or weeks I’m lured back into calorie counting and I think a little too often about food and its ingredients/labels. Other weeks I’m pulled in the opposite direction by running and I waste energy trying to make the perfect workout schedule and do everything according to pace. BUT, I know exactly what to do or who to reach out to when either of these things happen, and I find ways to re-center myself. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I don’t have to be stuck in the middle of two equally difficult problems. Both my sport and my ED will always be a central part of making me into the person I am today, but I am no longer being torn apart by either. I’m in control of how I spend my time, what I think about, and what deserves my attention—on any given day.
And, wow, regaining control over my life feels so damn good.
Author: Jessica Cushing-Murray is a graduate student at University of Hawaii Manoa pursuing a Master's degree in Nutrition. She was a member of the UCLA Cross Country and Track teams during her undergraduate career and is using her last season of eligibility as a grad student now on Oahu. As a competitive long distance runner, Jessica understands the difficulties of trying to balance proper nutrition with college athletics, and hopes that she can make a career out of educating and counseling student-athletes as her future career.
In just a few weeks I will be speaking at the San Francisco / Bay Area "Day for Dancer's Health" at the ODC!
And dancers, it's totally FREE to attend!!!!
In case you are going, here is what my breakout session is going to be about:
"Fueling the dancer's body for long rehearsals"
With Libby Parker, MS, RD; Registered Dietitian and owner of Not Your Average Nutritionist.
This session will cover how to eat for rehearsals and show days with the foods you love. Libby will cover timing of meals and snacks, hydration (and what’s the deal with sports beverages), and you’ll learn what macronutrient is the MVP for energy. Bring your performance nutrition questions. This is one topic from Libby’s more extensive online course “Whole Health For Performers” which covers all the health topics for stage performers that you never learned in school. Learn more or register here:
Find out more about the conference:
Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/221721465441739/
Facebook Fundraiser: https://www.facebook.com/66436867466/posts/10156027814407467/
ODC’s event webpage: https://odc.dance/DancersHealthDay
Indance article: http://dancersgroup.org/2019/01/injury-prevention-longevity-odcs-healthy-dancer s-clinic/
Libby Parker is a Registered Dietitian specializing in eating disorder recovery. Her private practice, Not Your Average Nutritionist, LLC, is in San Luis Obispo, CA, and she also does virtual counseling. She is in the final stages of her first book, Permission To Eat, coming late 2019. Libby started dance at the age of 3 (thanks, mom!) and is happiest when she is on stage in musical theatre productions. She just got back to CA from NYC where she auditioned for Broadway’s Mean Girls. Libby wants every dancer to love their body and never diet. @DietitianLibby www.NotYourAverageNutritionist.com
by Jessica Cushing-Murray
Mental health and issues like eating disorders (EDs) are being talked about more and more on platforms like social media. More people are speaking out about its importance and why these topics need to be addressed and brought up in conversation. And these are all great things - it’s exciting to see people spreading awareness with public social media posts - but posting about it and having a real life face-to-face conversation with someone struggling with an eating disorder are two very different tasks.
On my Division I college athletics team, issues like EDs were known but not necessarily voiced. Everyone knew the risk factors, the warning signs, and the importance of a well-balanced diet, but we didn’t have very many honest conversations about these things as a team. You can be someone who posts on Facebook that you support the education of athletes on the dangers of eating disorders, but you don’t really understand what that means until someone on your team (who you run with and see every single day) becomes so thin that the doctors bench her because they believe that continuing to race would be hazardous to her health.
So what does an open, in-person conversation about eating disorders look like? And why is it so important to have them, especially within the athletic community? The conversation starts with either a troubled person reaching out for help, or with a person concerned about a friend/family member.
Because the stigmatization of issues like eating disorders, or potential to be pulled from the team, athletes are often less inclined to talk about it or reach out for help than a non-athlete. However, in my experience, the most significant occurrence is the chain reaction that starts when one person speaks up about their struggles with eating, exercising, or dieting. All it takes is one brave person to tell a teammate that he/she is having a hard time, and we as athletes hear someone else admitting vulnerability, and are suddenly less afraid to acknowledge our own struggles. These conversations are so instrumental within athletics because we have very strong feelings about avoiding signs of weakness.
My team experienced this in a truly positive way. By one girl confessing something as small as “it makes me nervous to eat a lot of carbs,” it opens up the discussion into eating issues, and we realized that a lot of us were having the same fears and feelings when it came to nutrition. Talking about our own food beliefs with each other helped us realize that we weren’t alone in our thinking and that there are other people who know exactly what we are feeling. Once the conversation is opened up, everyone on the team is able to pitch in helpful ideas.
For some reason, in athletics, we find it harder to discuss mental issues in comparison to physical ones. But the conversation would actually follow the same outline regardless of whether someone is struggling with eating or dealing with a broken bone. For example, say you stress-fracture your tibia (shin bone). In distance running, odds are someone else on your team has had the same injury. They’re going to give you all the advice they can on non-weight-bearing forms of exercise, how important it was to wear the protective boot, and the best/worst days that came along as a result of their injury.
Discussions on issues like EDs would go exactly the same way. Because some people have never experienced food fears or the need to exercise or restrict calories, these people can give insight into their healthy way of thinking that keeps them on the right path to a well-nourished body. Some people have experienced these problems before and have guidance on the tools that can be used to overcome these fears. Others on the team are currently struggling, and the team atmosphere and accountability enables them to go places like the on-campus counseling services to seek advice from professionals. The best part about having other people know is that this difficult step of getting help can be done together and with friends.
So I ask again, why is opening up this conversation so important? Because seeking help and getting well is a process that is held up by a support system of people who want your recovery just as much as you do. There is so much to be gained by not having to go through an eating disorder alone. Talking about our mental struggles and fears and looking for support from the people around us is beneficial for ourselves and can unknowingly be the life-changing difference for others.
If you’ve noticed someone close to you showing signs of an ED, first try to understand that what they are going through is very difficult. Then, see if they’re ready to be open up about it; because talking about it is the first step toward getting help. And when it comes to asking someone about it, realize there are so many different possible outcomes: you can be supportive, have lots of questions, or you may even be wrong about them having an ED, but the worst thing you can do is to ignore it. So, ask. Be the person who’s willing to have a conversation about it. Be the difference.
Libby is a non-diet Registered Dietitian focusing on eating disorder treatment and prevention. She approaches health from the inclusive standpoint that any "body" can focus on health regardless of size. She is a ally in diversity.
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it is not a substitute for medical or mental health advice or treatment.