By Renee Mc Gregor
It’s the nature of the society we live in; many of us believe that we can change one aspect of our lives without in impacting another.
Athletes and dancers in particular will always be in search of that golden nugget that is going to enhance performance, many forgetting that what information is available may not be relevant to them.
There is a marked difference between Performance Nutrition and “Healthy Eating” guidelines. In many cases, if an athlete tried to follow the principles of nutrition for health, they may find themselves at risk of low energy availability. A diet high in fruits and vegetables is ideal for those individuals who are generally sedentary of who may meet the recommended “moderate” activity levels but is it suitable for a dancer who rehearses and practices 4-6 hours a day?
On average we go from utilising 1 calorie per minute at rest to up to 8 calories per minute when running at a moderate intensity. A diet high in fruit and vegetables provides antioxidants, vitamins, mineral and fibre; while these are important for a healthy balanced diet, in athletes the bulk and volume often means they displace more relevant nutrients such as energy and protein.
So what can seem like a good idea, a change in nutritional intake or an increase in training, can also be the first stages on the slippery slope to longer term health consequences.
Athletes and Dancers tend to be a certain personality type – determined, focused, compulsive, obsessive and self critical. This is not a bad thing; it is of course these traits that help them to achieve success. However, if these same traits are not managed well, they can also become their Achilles heel. The drive for success becomes something that is never fulfilled; the harder they try through training and restrictive eating, they never get to the point where they are satisfied and the more compulsive their behaviours becomes.
What started out as a “way of improving” soon results in psychological and physical consequences. When the body is under “stress” levels of cortisol rise; when this is chronic, it prevents the pituitary gland from working effectively, leading to hormonal disturbances that have serious negative consequences to performance. Similarly, the more obsessive and restrictive an individual becomes, it affects not only the levels and transmission of neurotransmitters but also has shown to structurally affect the brain, making it more and more difficult to make decisions. There is also a heightened sense of anxiety- it is this anxiety that leaves an individual feeling physically and mentally uncomfortable. In an attempt to control and contain these emotions, the individual’s behaviours become even more rigid and controlled.
The mind and the body are intrinsically linked. When energy availability is low, we know that it will reduce testosterone and oestrogen. These sex hormones have multiple roles from bone to heart health but also the production of serotonin, the feel good neurotransmitter in our brain. So when testosterone and oestrogen are at low levels, this also results in less serotonin being produced, leaving the individual low in mood. Comparatively, we know that exercise increases are level of dopamine, another feel good neurotransmitter. So its not surprising then that those athletes that are low in energy, will find it necessary to continue to train in order to boost their “well being”. The difficulty of course is that over stimulation of any neurotransmitter will impact another role within the brain. So flooding the brain with dopamine, causes a dysfunction of the midbrain resulting in the salience part of the brain becoming affected; that is the part of the brain that is involved in decision making and evaluating threat. This is why an athlete cannot see that their behaviours are actually detrimental to their health.
It is possible to see how being in a competitive environment, while necessary for human productivity, can also give rise to behaviours which if not managed well can result to a slippery slope towards a dysfunctional relationship with food and training.
Renee McGregor BSc (hons) PGDIP (DIET) PGCERT(sportsnutr) RD SENr
Sports and Eating Disorder Specialist Dietitian
Author of “Orthorexia” “Training Food” and “Fast Fuel” books
Co Founder of #TRAINBRAVE, a campaign launched to raise awareness of eating disorders and relative energy deficiency in sports (REDs), highlight risks, and change attitudes within endurance sports.