Muay Thai is a weight specific sport. If you’re interested in competing in Muay Thai, you’re most likely going to reach a point where how much you weigh will mean a lot to you. You don’t want to be that person at a fight who could have cut a lot of weight and decided not to, only to fight someone who did. You’ll be at a weight disadvantage and that can have a significant impact on, not only if you win or lose, but if you leave the ring beaten badly and/or injured.
As a result, a lot of us become hyper vigilant in keeping our weight down. Depending on which gym you train at, your trainers may be paying a lot of attention to your weight as well. For some, and in my case, while training Muay Thai in Bangkok, how much I weighed was interpreted as a representation of how much respect I had for my trainer(s). Being considered fat, or over my expected fight weight was deemed the physical manifestation of my disrespect for the people who were investing in me. There was the assumption that I was sneaking snacks and overeating while outside the gym.
My trainers took my weight personally.
This added to the pressure.
So, how do you know if you’re a disciplined Muay Thai fighter who eats clean and respects your body or an athlete with an eating disorder who is slowly destroying it? Sometimes the line between the two seem incredibly blurry.
To help us out, Mia Tannous, Health Promotions Manager at the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association delves into the subject of eating disorders and competitive sports.
Please describe what an eating disorder is.
An eating disorder is an unhealthy relationship with food. It is marked by an intense body dissatisfaction and body image distortion. The intense fear of weight gain or weight maintenance is powerful. A person with an eating disorder may attempt to control weight through extreme measures. Food may be used as a comfort or may be seen as the enemy. What and how food is eaten may consume a person’s thoughts and influence daily activities.
What are the most common misconceptions about eating disorders?
1. Eating Disorders Are About Liking Or Disliking Food
Not true, eating disorders are not about the food, they are coping mechanisms, affecting one’s relationship with food rather than the food itself.
2. Eating Disorders Only Affect Teenage Girls
Eating disorders touch everyone at any age, regardless of sex or socio-economic status.
3. Eating Disorders Are Easily Recognizable
Not everyone who looks thin has an eating disorder and not everyone who is of normal or overweight are exempt from having one. One’s appearance is not always a good predictor of whether or not they may be afflicted by an eating disorder.
4. Eating Disorders Are Self-Imposed
Many people think that a person suffering from an eating disorder has chosen this illness and can choose to rid themselves of it just as easily. Eating disorders are psychological disorders and are not started and stopped effortlessly at will.
5. Eating Disorders Are Not Curable
With proper intervention and treatment, eating disorders do not have to be a life-long illness.
In my experience competing in Muay Thai, which is a weight specific fight sport, issues arise that few people speak openly about. In your experience, what are your findings with competitive athletes?
Athletes are at a particularly higher risk for developing disordered eating behaviours, usually stemming from body image and weight concerns. Certain sports do provide a climate that encourages these behaviours and fosters a feeling of inadequacy based on appearance. Individually competitive sports such as wrestling, running, dance, gymnastics, etc., tend to drive athletes towards unhealthy eating and physical activity habits. These do not always necessarily develop into a full blown eating disorder but can be very damaging with a host of consequences. Athletes have a different type of pressure on them than non-athletes and attempts to meet the perceived demands of their sport can result in significant health risks.
Are there differences between athletes of different genders?
Statistically, more women are afflicted by eating disorders than men, regardless of whether or not they are athletes. Because of this fact, the stigma that has developed around eating disorders is that they are a female issue.
This stereotype can be attributed to the fact that women are more apt to seek support and treatment, as men are often either unwilling to recognize they have a problem, or too ashamed to admit it.
Athletes may often neglect seeking help due to the fear that their condition could become known to teammates and coaches and jeopardize their participation in the sport. It is important for athletes, both male and female to understand that their long term performance can be severely hindered should the unhealthy lifestyle behaviours persist.
How can an athlete determine the difference between disciplined sports specific eating and an eating disorder?
It can sometimes be difficult for an athlete to distinguish between eating habits required to maintain their sport and disordered eating. Unfortunately, sometimes they are indistinguishable because they are one in the same. Some eating practices that are encouraged for sport are what professionals would consider to be disordered and unhealthy. Athletes should always consider their motivation for what and why they are eating. Is it for sustenance, to lose or gain weight?
The motivation behind the behaviour can sometimes be more crucial than the behaviour itself.
An athlete’s body requires food to fuel their body to allow them to engage in their sport. Athletes should try not to become overly preoccupied with their eating and particularly with their weight and shape. That is not always easy given the pressures of certain sports, however it is important to stay tuned in to your bodily queues; i.e. eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Also, check in to make sure you are eating or not eating for the right reason, check in with yourself and monitor your self-esteem and body image.
Recommendations for coaches and trainers?
Coaches and trainers have a responsibility to their athletes to ensure their safety and well-being. If they are concerned that someone may be experiencing any issues related to eating or body image, it should be handled immediately. If a coach or trainer is unsure of how to talk to broach the subject, they can reach out to resources in their community for support and advice. As authority figures and role models in an athlete’s life, the onus is on trainers and coaches to encourage health and wellness at all levels and set a positive example for their teams and trainees. I would also suggest to hold mandatory prevention and health promotion workshops to facilitate healthy lifestyle attitudes and behaviours, again use your community resources, they are there to help!
What should someone who needs help do?
I would highly recommend to anyone who knows they have a problem, or even just suspects that they might to seek help. There are eating disorder service providers in most communities and they are ready and willing to help you along your journey. The earlier the intervention—the better the overall outcome will be.
It is difficult to admit you have concerns, but there is a host of caring professionals who want to guide you through this process and help make it more manageable for you. BANA has no demographic restrictions on the clients we see, and there is no fee for service with a valid OHIP* card. I encourage anyone experiencing disordered eating or body image issues to contact a professional as soon as possible.
*OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan) is provincially funded health coverage for Canadians residing in the province of Ontario.
The Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association (BANA) offers free information, Health Promotion and Educational Resources, for download. All documents are in PDF format. There is no registration. You do not have to be an Ontario resident to access and download BANA’s online resources.