“You can’t outwork a bad diet.”
So reads the whiteboard in the weight room of the Palmer Dixon Strength and Conditioning Center, where men and women from across Harvard’s 42 varsity sports come to lift, train, and prepare for the grind of their seasons.
But perhaps these athletes don’t need the added reminder that this sign provides.
For athletes, eating habits don’t just regulate their choices in the dining halls. They also affect their lives on the river and on the field, in classrooms and in dorm rooms. Whether it is bulking up for training camp or slimming down for a weigh-in, for many Harvard athletes, diet remains a constant in the forefront of their minds, impacting their academic, social, and athletic experiences at Harvard.
Much has been made in the media about abnormal eating habits and disorders in young adults. But what happens when those exceptions become the norm? When the proscribed behavior on a team urges athletes to focus more on immediate results—a rower’s eligibility to race on Saturday—than possible long-term health ramifications?
Work done by sports scientist Marriane Martinsen and sports medicine professor Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen indicates that, for some athletes, the answer to that question is simple: to achieve peak performance level, they must subscribe to the demands—and diet—of their sport. In their 2013 study, the researchers found that young elite athletes (50.7 percent) were twice as likely than non-athletes of the same age (25 percent) to be considered “at risk” for an eating disorder.
This emphasis on the “correct” body type for an athlete has created a culture in which athletic feats and disordered eating go hand in hand, experts and Harvard athletes say—a phenomenon only intensified at schools like Harvard by the pressure to adhere to team expectations.
“WHAT DOES ‘FIT’ MEAN?”
If the white noise of the media wasn’t enough to portray the need to have a certain body to college athletes, the motivation to perform at a high level only fuels the flame.
Kate, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson due to the sensitivity of the topic, was a walk-on to the Harvard women’s track and field team; she eventually walked off, but not before witnessing widespread patterns of “disordered eating.”
“[Runners] have the media, whoever, saying be skinny,” Kate said. “And they know…mathematically speaking, if I’m skinnier I can go faster. But you also have to remember you need to consume those calories to be able to make your body go faster. It’s such a very, very delicate balance between eating enough so you have enough energy, and then being skinny enough for society.”
For Emily Kroshus, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Science at the Harvard School of Public Health and a former All-American distance runner at Princeton, these pressures create a standard that athletes feel compelled to meet.
“I think ‘looking fit’ is a term that is used by coaches quite a bit, usually with reference to someone looking thin,” Kroshus said. “But are you looking fit? No, you’re looking thin…. I think in many cases, team members want to please [their coaches], want to do well, want to move up in the roster spots, and I think often times they are looking for cues from their coach for what’s good.”
This influence of team dietary practices—established by coaches or upperclassmen—is one factor that can lead athletes to fixate on their weights. According to a 2002 study by University of Utah clinical professor Katherine Beals, 55 percent of female student-athletes reported “experiencing pressure to achieve or maintain a certain weight” from both internal (the self) and external (teammates and coaches) sources.