Athlete: Healthy Eating Without Dieting and Purging?

By September 6, 2012

My history with food started in high school with a diet of 1500 calories per day. I usually stretched it to about 1300 per day. I am a serious athlete so I exercise usually between 10-20 hours per week for my sport. This caloric intake enabled me to lose about 30 pounds in three months, but by the end, I didn’t have the energy to complete my workouts so my coach convinced me to eat more. I was scared at first, but got better at eating only to find that I didn’t really know when I was hungry anymore. I started binging, then purging, and a few years later was probably a clinical case of BN, but I never got clinical help or diagnosis. Now, I haven’t purged for about a year, but my thoughts still cycle back to the old habits, especially when I start to gain weight. I am 5’11”, 195 pounds, and super strong (so not as fat as I may sound), but I really want to weigh about 175. I’m scared to diet but I can’t find the discipline outside of a diet to eat healthily. I’m also in college, so I have very little control over the food I am exposed to, and all kinds of junk is constantly available. What can I do to build discipline? – S.

Dear S.,

It sounds to me like you have made some very positive strides in your quest towards a healthy body. You are strong, athletic and a hard worker in your sport. You’ve also made a decision to try to eat well.

Even though you feel that you are not currently at your healthiest weight, you are wise to refrain from returning to your dieting days. Your high school coach gave you good counsel back then. As a dedicated athlete, it’s no wonder you were running out of gas during workouts at the calorie level you were following. Your nutrient intake was inadequate to fuel your body, protect your health and maximize performance. You were also losing muscle mass.

Now let’s talk about your eating struggles. Again, give yourself credit for the progress you have made. You don’t specify the type of purging you had practiced, but stopping for over a year now is a big step. My only question is whether or not you are still engaged in frequent bingeing. If so, be sure that you haven’t been substituting excessive exercise as another form of purging. If you are finding yourself trapped in a cycle of overeating followed by obsessively working out to compensate, I would recommend that you talk to a professional counselor who specializes in eating disorders.

Finally, I applaud you for your desire to eat more healthfully. Because of your past dieting experiences, however, you are approaching it as an all-or-none endeavor. With time, you will learn to trust your ability to make healthy choices, and your body will naturally reach its healthiest weight for your body type. For a serious athlete, it’s especially critical that you keep your body supplied with a steady source of fuel, so don’t skip meals and be sure to keep healthy snacks handy. You can’t go wrong with a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans, but also be sure to include a lean protein source with each meal. As far as the not-so-healthy foods you feel surrounded by, they can be incorporated into your overall healthy eating lifestyle. Moderation is the key. Some people follow this rule of thumb: select healthy foods about 90% of the time. That leaves room for small amounts of “fun foods”—10% of your choices.”

I would recommend that you read The Sports Nutrition Guidebook by Nancy Clark, to get a lot more detailed, helpful information. For more individualized nutrition counseling, ask your coach to help you find a registered dietitian. You’re on the right track!