The Sexism of Nutrition

By: Molly Hurford Dec 14

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“This chapter covers the issues that relate specifically to female athletes. These centre around disordered eating…”

Last week, I was flipping through yet another sports nutrition guide. It included a chapter on women-specific nutrition, so of course, I was drawn to that. However, when I arrived at the appropriate page, I realized that the chapter began with women and eating disorders, and ended with pregnancy. The disordered eating section, by the way, at no point mentioned that eating disorders can happen to men, as well as women – especially elite athletes.

All other disparities and severe information gaps aside, what bothered me the most was that the eating disorder section was confined to the “for women” chapter. I went to my exercise physiology and nutrition textbook to confirm what I was afraid of, and was again proven correct: the only reference to eating disorders and the athlete was in the chapter focused on women.

Flash forward to this past weekend, when I was out to dinner post-race. The conversation went as follows:

“For next year, I really need to drop ten pounds if I’m going to be fast.”
“I have such big arms. I can’t seem to drop weight, but my body fat is at six percent.”
“I’m a better climber when I’ve lost five pounds.”

In cycling, as in many sports, confining the subject of eating disorders to the female population isn’t just chauvinistic, it’s an ignorant and potentially dangerous oversight. The statements listed above weren’t from other female cyclists; they were from men. (Though admittedly, I echoed several of the sentiments, especially the one about the climbing!) To be a cyclist, to be an athlete, means thinking constantly about the state of your body. To some degree, when trying to get to those higher levels, there’s a certain amount of body image issues naturally involved. Most of us are not born with a lean, muscular physique, we have to work for it. And this leads to the issue at hand: the cyclist and his or her body image.
Of course, two sports nutrition books can’t be the ultimate resource, so we turn (as we often do) to the studies.

A site dedicated to addiction, AnonymousOne.com, has this to say about men and eating disorders, and why society at large assumes eating disorders are a female issue:

“There are several explanations for the later or missed diagnosis of this disease in men. First is the widespread press and medical belief that this is a female problem. There is, however, no published study that verifies the addiction of Anorexia/Bulimia is any more physiologically gender specific than any other addiction […] Excessive exercise by men in sports like jogging, cycling, and tennis where excess “dead” weight is a performance concern may also mask the problem. The males eat for performance and appearance, not for nutrition. Outwardly, they may look healthily.”

The studies back this up. First, I looked at studies focusing on athletic versus non-athletic populations, and how eating disorders are treated between the two. In “Elite athletes: Effects of the pressure to be thin,” the study found that, when looking at a population of over 250 athletes versus the same number of non-athletes, “The results suggest that athletes do, in fact, have a higher prevalence of eating disorders than non-athletes. However, it is not so much being an athlete that places an individual at increased risk for developing an eating disorder; rather it is athletes competing in sports which emphasize the importance of a thin body shape or a low body weight who appear to be particularly vulnerable.” Sound like cycling?
Interestingly, the study begins by pointing out, “This study represented the first attempt to examine the prevalence of eating disorders in a large sample of both male and female elite athletes compared to a matched control group of non-athletes.” The thing that struck me here, again, is that this study, unlike the textbooks I’d been reading, is concentrating on athletes as an overall group, rather than assuming that eating disorders are a “female issue.”

So, on to the studies that prove my point that men—in particular athletes—are just as susceptible to eating disorders: “Male athletes have been hypothesized to be at increased risk for disordered eating attitudes and behaviors due to unique pressures in the sport environment.”

Yep, that’s pretty much what I figured. In the study entitled “Prevalence of Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating Behaviors Among Male Collegiate Athletes,” 203 male collegiate athletes were surveyed. While ultimately none were classified with a “clinical eating disorder,” almost 20% reported a sufficient number and level of symptoms “to be considered symptomatic.” Nearly a quarter? That seems like a pretty high number for a population who is largely dismissed when it comes to discussing eating disorders.

More cycling-specific was the article “The Prevalence of Subclinical Eating Disorders among Male Cyclists,” where the introduction begins by pointing out the problem being discussed in this article. “Disordered eating behaviors are typically seen as a problem in females and there are little data assessing their prevalence in males.”

In a questionnaire given to the male cyclists in this study, twelve were singled out as having a tendency toward “disordered eating.” Of those twelve, only five admitted to having an eating disorder. However, of the 60 cyclists surveyed, half of them agreed that eating disorders among cyclists were common. The study concludes that, “male cyclists may not know how to identify disordered eating habits and may be at an amplified risk for eating disorders and nutritional deficits.”
We are in a sport where weight is, indeed, an indicator of performance. And an emphasis on diet is required to be at the top of our fields, no doubt. For sure, most of the men and women in cycling focus on healthy diet and cut weight properly and only in ways that will improve their cycling abilities. However, on several levels and for several reasons, I feel like it’s important to acknowledge the lack of awareness of eating disorders in men, not just women, in the athletic profession.

By confining pieces about anorexia or bulimia to the “women’s” sections of sports books, magazines, websites, etc., we perpetuate a stereotype that is proven to be patently untrue, and we send a message to men that suggests that having an eating disorder is something to be ashamed of because it’s a “women’s issue,” or that having an eating disorder isn’t an issue for men at all, that it’s just “part of the sport” for them. Eating disorders and disordered eating are a problem for both sexes when it comes to athletes, especially the higher up in the sport one gets, and that needs to be recognized and addressed.

Sources:
The Prevalence of Subclinical Eating Disorders among Male Cyclists
http://www.adajournal.org/article/S0002-8223%2807%2900602-5/abstract

Anonymous One: http://www.anonymousone.com/faq201.htm

Elite athletes: Effects of the pressure to be thin
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1440244002800299

Prevalence of Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating Behaviors Among Male Collegiate Athletes
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1524922008600237

The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition by Anita Bean

 

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