Beyond food as fuel: Exploring women athletes’ relationship with foodNovember 23, 2022
Athletes’ relationship with food can be complicated. This is especially true for women in sport, who tend to have higher rates of disordered eating (Torstveit et al., 2007). The role of sport participation in athletes’ relationship with food is not straightforward. Some studies suggest that sport participation itself can make disordered eating more likely. Other research highlights the many benefits of sport participation, including improved body image (Petrie et al., 2009).
How do sporting cultures shape athletes’ relationship with food and their bodies? Importantly, how do women athletes navigate this relationship and what do they have to say about it?
To answer these questions, I interviewed 9 female-identified athletes and 2 coaches of women’s varsity teams at an NCAA Division II university. My participants included athletes from a variety of sports, including individual sports (swimming, track and field and wrestling) and team sports (football, basketball and volleyball). This allowed me to explore a variety of sporting cultures while highlighting athletes’ voices in the conversation around women’s relationship with food and disordered eating in sport.
In this blog, I will discuss the implications of framing food as “fuel” and eating as “fuelling.” On the one hand, thinking of food as fuel encourages athletes to consume food to support their athletic training and may help prevent restrictive eating. On the other hand, thinking of food as solely “fuel” suggests that the athlete’s body is merely a machine. Finally, “food as fuel” shifts the focus away from other ways of relating to food.
What stood out across all interviews was how athletes and coaches spoke of food as “fuel” for the body. Athletes and coaches discussed “fuelling” in the sense of consuming enough energy and nutrients. One of the coaches suggested that thinking of food as fuel can help athletes move away from labelling foods as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy.” The athletes I interviewed also appeared to associate this term with a more positive and less restriction-oriented relationship with food.
In other words, “food as fuel” may indicate that sporting cultures are moving away from food restriction and dieting and toward emphasizing sufficient energy intake for athletes. Discussions around low energy availability in athletes and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) also reflect this shift. (Mountjoy et al., 2018)
However, when food is framed solely as a technology to support athletic performance this de-emphasizes other important roles of food like eating for enjoyment, social connection or eating as a way of honoring one’s culture.
This idea of “fuel” implies that the body is an instrument or a machine. In fact, it is not uncommon for athletic bodies to be described in mechanical terms. This can create a distance between the athlete and their body and even suggest that athletes are less than human, with their needs and feelings being less important than the goal of athletic performance.
The athletes and coaches I interviewed also connected “fuelling” with eating for “health.” Many athletes I interviewed described “healthy eating” as a goal, although often a challenging one. Some indicated that healthy eating can help attain a leaner body or improve athletic performance. It was also clear that the responsibility for eating well and staying healthy rested with the individual athlete. This focus on individual responsibility for health conceals the role of external factors that shape athletes’ access to and relationship with food (Dworkin & Wachs, 2009). For example, many athletes described the practical challenges of “fuelling well,” from time constraints and the difficulty of planning and preparing meals to the high cost of fresh produce and other foods they considered nutritious.
When I asked athletes what eating healthy means to them, they typically described eating more vegetables and salads while avoiding “junk food.” Indirectly, these conversations implied eating with restraint or moderation. Conversely, other athletes talked about being able to enjoy foods that they did not associate with healthy eating (such as hamburgers). In this context, the emphasis was often on being able to consume food in large amounts or not having to restrain themselves.
Both approaches, although they emphasize different foods (“healthy” or “junk”) and approaches to eating (restrained or unrestrained) can describe what it means to “fuel” the athletic body.
Although athletes and coaches said that eating restriction was undesirable and harmful, many also implied that athletes need to manage their bodies. This “body management” can include weight, leanness, as well as other physical characteristics. Participants described the paradox of an athlete as someone who “fuels well” by eating food in abundance and yet remains lean or can change their body when needed (for example, to make weight for a competition or to improve athletic performance).
Despite the shifts in the way that people in sporting cultures talk about food, they still seem to prize particular kinds of bodies and foster the belief that athletes can shape their bodies through training, discipline, and, importantly, the consumption of (or restraint from) food.
Navigating the tensions around “food as fuel”
Viewing food as fuel can be both helpful and problematic. In deconstructing this concept, I shed light onto the tensions and pressures that athletes, especially women athletes, experience in sport. My research also shows how athletes navigate these pressures and contradictions.
Many athletes talked about using self-knowledge in navigating their relationship with food and their bodies. For example, a wrestler described their journey of finding what they felt was a balanced way to “cut weight” while still enjoying food. This included competing in different weight classes and reflecting on the experience, both in terms of performance and how they felt. Similarly, athletes in other sports talked about using self-observation, rather than relying on external guidance or rules, to find out what kinds of food helped them feel good and perform well.
Some athletes challenged the idea that only certain kinds of bodies can achieve good athletic performance. Several athletes I interviewed described how athletes whose bodies did not fit the image traditionally associated with idealized bodies in their sport (usually slim or lean) achieved excellent results. Another athlete emphasized the diversity of bodies in sport, saying: “it’s a big misconception that you think you can […] judge a person’s strength or their endurance or their […] mental determination by just looking at them.” This participant expressed hope that recognizing and celebrating this diversity can help ease the pressure many athletes experience in conforming to a particular body ideal.
By building self-awareness and knowledge, athletes can reshape their relationship with food in ways that transcend ideas of discipline and bodily control and emphasize athletes’ autonomy. Although sporting cultures can reinforce unhelpful or even harmful beliefs and practices, athletes’ voices and experiences can help create shifts in these cultures toward a more positive and empowering relationship with food.
About the Author(s)
Marina Khonina holds an MA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University where they studied sporting cultures and women athletes’ relationship with food. Marina is a former Senior Research Coordinator at SIRC and currently works as a research consultant and project coordinator. Marina has a special interest in knowledge translation in sport and health sciences. Marina is also a track and field athlete competing in sprinting events.
Dworkin, S. L., & Wachs, F. L. (2009). Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness. NYU Press.
Mountjoy, M., Sundgot-Borgen, J., Burke, L., Ackerman, K. E., Blauwet, C., Constantini, N., … Budgett, R. (2018). International Olympic Committee (IOC) Consensus Statement on Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): 2018 Update. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(4), 316–331. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0136
Petrie, T. A., Greenleaf, C., Reel, J. J., & Carter, J. E. (2009). An examination of psychosocial correlates of eating disorders among female collegiate athletes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 80(3), 621–632. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2009.10599601
Torstveit, M. K., Rosenvinge, J. H., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2007). Prevalence of eating disorders and the predictive power of risk models in female elite athletes: a controlled study. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 18(1), 108–118. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2007.00657.x
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