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Let's talk about Dietary Control

Last night I read a social media post that is stuck on my brain. It involved a topic that I feel very strongly about, and one that I encounter both personally and professionally on a daily basis: dietary control.

If you follow triathlon, chances are you’re familiar with Holly Lawrence. If not, you can read about her accolades on her website. The Cliff’s Notes version: she’s a firecracker of a triathlete, having earned herself a World Champion title and several 70.3 wins over the past couple years. Then she had a startling DNF at the World Championships in Chattanooga this year. (For my uninitiated friends, DNF=Did Not Finish.)

It wasn’t until yesterday that Holly bravely shared the series of events that led to her DNF. I invite you to hit up her Instagram page to read the two-part explanation of her experience.

I have never met Holly, though I’ve eaten her dust a couple of times in Oceanside. But her post yesterday made me an instant super-fan. It is not often that pros of her caliber open up so courageously about their struggles. And with her candor comes an opportunity for others to learn and avoid similar pitfalls.

Here’s why I feel so passionately about this topic and why we need more athletes like Holly to share their experiences.

You are a human being first. Whether competitive athletes or not, the vast majority of my clientele come to me seeking to lose an extra few pounds. I operate under this mantra: they are human beings first, athletes second. There are basic needs for optimal health that must be satisfied whether you’re an athlete or not (and sometimes more so because you’re athletic.) Adequate calories, a nutrient-packed diet and other wellness behaviors like sleep, stress management and self-care all contribute to a healthy human being. Only after we address these vital health needs will we then start monkeying with calories, macros and body composition.

Dietary control does not equate to increased performance. If you’ve ever worked with me, you may recall that our first conversation involves an exploration into priorities: are you set on an arbitrary number on the scale, or is optimal health most important? Many clients are taken aback by this discussion, assuming that moderate weight loss and leanness equate to health and performance. Not so! In fact, I have seen more negative performance outcomes from strict dietary control than I have seen performance benefits. And this is coming from someone who engages in a little self-experimentation on the subject. I may not have the street cred of a world champion. But I can 100% relate to the mindset which draws one past the realm of optimal performance into a world where control, extremes and impeccable discipline are paramount.

The illusion of perfection has a strong pull. Like a mysterious creature that feeds off of doubt, comparison and ultimately fear, it lies in wait until the right scenario presents itself. Only then does it emerge to seduce you into its world. Once you’re in this world, all you can see is control. Focus. Black and white or conditional thinking. Rules around eating become paramount. Social situations are profoundly influenced by these rules and the praise that comes with how “fit” or “great” you look only feeds the beast.

Stop and think for a moment about some common triggers for this cascade. In Holly’s case, it was an injury. Another culprit is a disappointing outcome in a race or even an entire season. In contrast, sometimes a breakthrough performance can initiate extreme dietary control.

It knows no gender. So often we associate dietary control with females. Sure, disordered eating is more common in women, but when it comes to athletes the pendulum doesn’t swing so strongly in favor of one gender. Notably, Jesse Thomas has shared his past struggles with balancing nutrition and performance. Just this past season, I had a conversation with another accomplished male pro who asked my opinion on supplementation to increase his iron and stabilize his hormone levels. It took about 5 minutes of listening to his typical dietary patterns for me to provide my prescription: “EAT MORE!” I have also worked with a number of age group athletes and weekend warriors who are blind to the connection between adequate nutrition and mental, emotional and physical health. We’re talking about health, remember? Not just performance. And just because males don’t menstruate doesn’t mean they avoid grave health consequences from aberrant dietary control. (See RED-S for more info).

We "should" know better. No judgment here. But this conversation has been blasted ad nauseum yet we still go rounds with it. Especially at the elite level, it might seem surprising that athletes still fall victim to the mentality that lighter=faster and dietary control=dedication to sport. We've heard all the warnings, so why do some still stumble down this path?

Even I, the nutrition expert preaching on her soap box right now, have the occasional battle with the mental demons who promise that a little more discipline will make things all better. Having struggled with a running injury heading into Ironman Arizona, I became aware of some detrimental thoughts creeping in. “Just keep yourself light while on this running hiatus and it will be easier to bring back the run.” And “Maybe whittling off a pound or two could ease the impact on your body, thus preventing running issues in the future.” Thank goodness for my training as a dietitian, which counters these thoughts with impartial facts: restricting nutrition and losing weight, especially during a healing period, can lead to prolonged injury, undue mental stress and weakness upon return to sport.

The pressure to perform. The desire to compete. The need for control. These influencers lead to actions based on emotion rather than rational thought. As I was once told by sports psychologist Gloria Petruzzelli (whom I profoundly respect), “feelings aren’t facts.” Understandably, it is incredibly difficult to distinguish between the two when your brain is experiencing an emotional hijacking. And this battle between what we are feeling versus the evidence and facts is what can lead to the downward spiral.

But hopefully if it ever happens to you, you’ll remember a cautionary story from an icon like Holly or Jesse. Or perhaps you’ll recall that blog you once read on some dietitian’s website. Whatever message brings you back to reality, my hope is that this continual conversation promotes healthy attention to dietary control and total wellness- whether you’re a world champion or not.

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