With so much information available at our fingertips, athletes and individuals often stop listening to their internal cues. The result is a rise in conditions ranging from REDs to obesity through the general population, as author and sports dietician Renee McGregor explains.
Those of you who have been following my regular blogs for Strava will know that a large percentage of my work as a sports dietitian involves working with those that have been diagnosed with REDs, relative energy deficiency in sport.
As a recap, REDs is a disorder that is underpinned by low energy availability resulting in negative consequences for health and performance. It can be intentional, and thus often associated with a dysfunctional relationship with food and exercise, or it can be unintentional, when the individual just doesn’t appreciate how much energy is needed to support their training and biological processes within the body.
Being human is ‘expensive’
What I mean by this is that the human body requires a large amount of energy simply to function – and its preferred currency is glucose. We need energy for our brain, heart, lungs, hormones, bone health, digestive system and much more. Yet we live in a society that informs us that we only really need energy for movement. This misconception is leading many of us, including athletes of all abilities, to significantly under fuel, thus resulting in a higher prevalence of REDs in the active population.
As a student dietitian back in the late 90s we were thoroughly educated on the rise in obesity and the higher risk of disease related to this. The general message that was broadcasted was one of 'Move more and Eat Less'.
Fast forward 20-plus years and this is still the narrative. And while there is a rise in REDs amongst active people, there is also an increase in obesity amongst the wider population.
Why are we getting it so wrong?
Obesity is a complex disorder which is definitely not as simple as energy in versus energy out. Additionally, what we know from physiological studies is that when we exercise, we actually increase our appetite. This is because the human body is biologically biassed towards energy balance. So, if we move more, we actually need to eat more. Equally, if we consume more, our body has the ability to speed up our metabolism and increase our involuntary movement to help compensate.
Finally, if we have a large deficit, then our body identifies this as a threat and will work to preserve energy – this is why fad and extreme diets never work. There is evidence that a small energy deficit can lead to weight loss, but by small we mean small, so this is not a quick fix.
Many of us who engage in physical activity will rely on technology to determine things like how recovered we are and how much food we should eat. While devices have their uses, many of us have lost our ability to listen to our internal cues.
It’s not hard to see how the relationship between food and our body, in particular, has become so confusing. There is a constant pressure to 'get it right', but also to be seen to be 'enjoying life'.
Social media provides us with round the clock 'information' on how we should eat, train, and sleep, which again plays into our internal world, generating a narrative which may appear to be correct but actually is not relevant to us at all. How can what someone else eats in a day really inform you how you should be eating?
The problem with Societal Ideals
It’s not hard to see how the relationship between food and our body, in particular, has become so confusing. There is a constant pressure to 'get it right', but also to be seen to be 'enjoying life'. There are societal ideals that feed into our psyche, especially those of us who are athletes, professional or recreational. How will we be taken seriously if we don’t “look the part”.
Social media also plays a part in being a platform where many individuals attain worth. Almost every account feels like it’s a brand, trying to sell you their perfect formula for happiness and optimal performance. And in such a competitive environment, it is no wonder everyone is always trying to outdo each other – it’s a perpetual cycle of who can go further, faster, or more extreme.
Athletes of all levels tend to have certain personality traits that encourage success – they are motivated, determined, perfectionistic, focused, obsessive, self-critical and often compulsive. But on the flip side, these same traits when not managed well, can be problematic. In fact, when you combine these individual traits into the competitive environment we have described above - one full of (mis)information and false promises - you create the perfect storm for dysfunctional behaviors with the most popular in the athletic population being disordered eating, under recovery and overtraining, none of which will ever lead to optimal performance.