Updated: Jul 12, 2022
About a month ago, ESPN published a piece on NFL linemen and their relationships with food during and after sport. As a registered dietitian who mainly works with young athletes in my practice, I’m acutely aware of the messages teen players are bombarded with in regards to nutrition and sports performance. As most athletes’ primary source of news and information, my expectations for nutrition-related articles published by ESPN are, justifiably, very high. I found many of the messages expressed in this piece particularly confusing, dangerous, and diet culture-laden.
The author, Emily Kaplan, begins the article by mentioning a variety of foods that are traditionally demonized and considered “unhealthy” in her description of Joe Thomas’s meal. Her implication is that everything he’s eating is unhealthy and the stage is being set for the broken relationship many players have with food. Kaplan states that this relationship usually dates back to college. I would argue, however, that diet culture permeates all age groups. Kids have more and more access to media and are feeling an increased push to perform at younger ages than ever before. Many have unlimited access to the internet, news, and social media and are constantly bombarded with messages about nutrition, both good and bad. For this reason, it is of the utmost importance that nutrition messages be backed by science and come from registered dietitians, the experts who are required thousands of hours of nutrition education and training. The article makes only one brief mention of a dietitian (who is actually referred to as a nutritionist in the piece despite her credentials), but even this was in the context of putting a player on a diet. Registered dietitians’ role with players can be so much more complex and valuable, but when the leading source on sports news fails to interview a sports dietitian in a nutrition-focused article, is it any wonder why players struggle with their relationships with food? Furthermore, the athletes in the ESPN piece played in the NFL and have extensive professional resources and likely increased access to nutrition professionals; what about the players that lack these same privileges and struggle with their nutrition out of high school when they don’t make a professional team and leave the sport sooner than expected?
The article waffles between praising and criticizing players’ eating habits, at one point glorifying them as signs of commitment and will power, and subsequently acknowledging the behavior as destructive and categorizing it as disordered eating. In that same vein, Kaplan puts a great deal of emphasis on praising players’ weight loss after retirement and how they “pulled it off” by engaging in equally unhealthy disordered eating practices and diets. This is not to say that these are original ideas or that ESPN is the first to publish a sports nutrition article so heavily laden in diet culture, but therein lies the problem. These messages about players dieting are everywhere and have become unavoidable. Furthermore, not only are the messages contradictory, but they’re also incredibly confusing. We aren’t setting individuals up to have healthy relationships with food. Players feel pressure to eat a specific way and are told if they don’t then their performance will suffer. After sport, the obsession and broken relationship with food is just rearranged into a different form instead of addressed and remedied. What is consistently missing is responsible education on the role diet has in performance and how to make informed choices throughout a sports career and beyond. When athletes feel the loss of their identity as a player and have a major life shift, there is also a drastic shift in their relationship with food and they are often left feeling confused. These are all issues that require careful navigation and guidance with the help of a registered dietitian.
As a nutrition professional, I believe in providing individualized guidance and try to avoid generalizations as much as possible. However, relying on medications due to constant discomfort from purposeful overeating is not normal and shouldn’t be glossed over as an expected “symptom” of being an athlete. While the use of PEDs is commonly frowned upon, why is it that we expect athletes to gorge themselves, starve themselves, or otherwise make drastic manipulations to their diets in order to significantly alter body composition and performance outcomes? Where is the line? Why is it that binging on food to the point of feeling ill is only sometimes unhealthy, but we should universally praise players who lose massive quantities of weight during life after sport by any means necessary? Spoiler alert: none of this behavior is healthy. Simply put, the size of an individual’s body has no bearing on whether or not a behavior is healthy. Athletes who intentionally starve themselves to lose weight are engaging in disordered eating behaviors, no matter their body size. Athletes who binge on food to the point of sickness in order to gain weight are engaging in disordered eating behaviors, no matter their body size.
Diet culture is everywhere and we all have a role to play in ensuring that athletes are able to navigate the world of nutrition armed with the necessary knowledge and tools. As dietitians, we must continue to work to make our expertise known and make ourselves available to players who may not otherwise have any means of guidance when it comes to nutrition. I implore those in the media to make it your mission to publish content backed by actual experts in the field you’re covering; players look to your pieces as resources and if they are not provided with accurate information from informed professionals, you are doing them a great disservice. Finally, if you are an athlete or currently in life after sport, please know that there is always hope for maintaining a healthy relationship with food; if you’re not there yet, it’s never too late to put in the work. I urge you to reach out to a registered dietitian if you have questions or are struggling.
Written by Sarah M. Lehnert, RD, LDN