Matthew Stranberg is the lead nutritionist and exercise science advisor for the Walden GOALS Program, one of the nation’s top programs equipping athletes with the mental and nutritional skills to achieve their full athletic potential and sustain a positive mindset. We recently caught up with him to discuss some nutrition advice for athletes and the troubling rise of eating disorders among this population.
You began your career helping hundreds of college athletes – some who went onto professional and Olympic careers – enhance their strength and conditioning goals. What are you most proud of with that experience?
That I had the opportunity to be an integral part of their training and growth. The relationship between coach and athlete is extraordinary. It requires trust, patience, countless hours of struggle and years of work for dreams to come to fruition. Knowing that I played a part in this challenging process is incredibly special.
From there, you added a focus on nutrition, and are uniquely trained in its intersection with exercise science. What led to your interest in those areas?
As a fledgling high school athlete, I was determined to be the best. I dedicated countless hours reading journals, books, and articles to help plan my own strength and conditioning programs. This ignited my passion to continue this journey with others throughout college. In an effort to maximize my own training and my athletes’ careers, I devoted the majority of my undergraduate and graduate career to coaching and was heavily involved in the exercise science lab researching walking and running form. This interplay between the acquisition of knowledge and the art and science of applying that knowledge to coaching further cemented my interest in the connection between nutrition and exercise science.
What is one of the biggest myths related to nutrition among athletes?
There are so many, in part because athletes are targeted heavily by the diet and supplement industries. The biggest myth, in my opinion, is the concept that there is a “perfect” diet. Endorsed by celebrities, professional athletes, fitness magazines and other trusted sources, athletes approach me with both confidence and confusion in their quest for the perfect diet, the perfect body or the perfect performance in their sport. Dieting and use of nutritional supplements without appropriate supervision however, can cause serious problems for athletes, including impaired athletic performance and development of disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders.
Today, you help both high school and college athletes who are experiencing eating disorders. What many don’t know is the profound prevalence of eating disorders in sport; in fact, athletes are 2-3 times more prone than the average population. In your mind, what puts athletes at increased risk?
Many factors are involved, including genetics, personal characteristics and environmental influences. Some of the interpersonal qualities that allow athletes to excel in sport, such as the commitment to sport, discipline, determination and drive to excel, may similarly precipitate eating disorders. Add the pressures to perform in a highly competitive sports environment, faulty beliefs about athlete body types that maximize performance and a mismatch between high nutritional needs of athletes relative to access to sound nutrition advice, and athletes can find themselves in “the perfect storm” for an eating disorder.
What are some of the most common warning signs of an eating disorder among athletes?
That is a great question! Warning signs can include weight loss, over-training and specific types of injuries. I recently blogged about these in more depth here.
What is your average day like?
Before athletes arrive for an evening in the GOALS Program, I spend time with my colleagues discussing our educational strategies and individualized athlete care plans. Once program starts, I facilitate an interactive group where athletes gain knowledge on sports nutrition, practice behavioral skills, set personalized goals and process their experiences with other participants. We share dinner each night at GOALS, giving athletes an opportunity to plan, prepare and eat a meal that meets their needs. I also conduct weekly private counseling sessions with each athlete, helping them process eating disorder struggles and customizing a meal plan to meet their specific nutritional needs. An important part of my day involves communicating with parents, coaches and other providers involved in the athlete’s support network to ensure comprehensive care.
What is one of your most inspiring experiences providing care to athletes?
There are many, but one in particular stands out in my mind – a college athlete I met when working on the inpatient unit at Walden Behavioral Care. Convinced recovery was unachievable, she expressed strong feelings of helplessness and hopelessness because of her eating disorder. After months of hard work within inpatient and partial hospital-level treatment, the athlete was well enough to join the GOALS Program and she dedicated her summer to recovery. When we first met, this athlete was exercising excessively and engaging in many disordered eating behaviors. After months of consistent commitment to treatment, she reduced her exercise to appropriate levels and established healthy, flexible eating behaviors. She proudly told stories that reflected her newly mastered abilities to go out to dinner with friends and family, eat whatever she wanted to eat, tune into her own body’s cues and properly fuel for her sport. By the end of the GOALS Program, this athlete was tearfully smiling, thanking the team for helping her “reclaim” her life. It is moments like these that confirm how meaningful my work is on a daily basis.
If someone suspects they (or a teammate) might have an eating disorder, what advice would you have?
Seek help from someone you trust such as a parent, teacher, guidance counselor, coach, residential life staff on campus or health professional like a doctor, therapist or registered dietitian. Expressing your concern for the well-being of the individual and connecting them to a helpful support network can make a substantial positive difference in their life.
What is the role of coaches, athletic trainers, and other sports professionals in these instances?
They are often our first line of defense and instrumental in eating disorder prevention. They are central to promoting a sport environment where team norms and empowering messages support healthy habits around proper eating and appropriate training to build strong bodies that are ready to compete. Sports professionals need to be educated and aware of the warning signs and dangers of eating disorders. They play an important role in the early identification of athletes in need of referral for assessment and intervention. They can also support athletes working to maintain recovery when they return to practice and competition.
Do you feel there are misperceptions or a false stigma associated with athletes and eating disorders? If so, what are they?
There are many, but I’ll focus on two. One misperception is that only female athletes or athletes participating in specific sports (like gymnastics or track) are impacted by eating disorders. Eating disorders do not discriminate. They affect athletes in any and all sports regardless of sex, race, age, socio-economic status or sexual orientation.
A second is the notion that eating disorders, while generally recognized as mental health conditions, don’t necessarily have widespread implications for athletes. Left untreated, eating disorders claim lives and sabotage athletes’ careers. While a sports-related injury like an ACL tear or concussion is swiftly evaluated and treated, eating disorders are not similarly handled. Experts encourage the reframing of the eating disorder in sport as an injury with serious physiological, metabolic and physical consequences requiring evaluation and treatment. Rectifying these two misperceptions may effectively address some of the conventional barriers to eating disorder treatment in sport.
What do you enjoy most about working with athletes?
I enjoy the opportunity to be an integral part of an athlete’s growth and recovery process. The relationship between the GOALS treatment team and the athlete is very special as it requires trust, patience and a lot of collaborative work. To know that I played a part in this challenging process is incredibly rewarding.
Matt is a licensed registered dietitian nutritionist and certified strength and conditioning specialist. He is a lead nutritionist and exercise science advisor for the Walden GOALS program. Matt devoted the early part of his career to refining the art of training elite collegiate and professional athletes. In graduate school, he developed expertise in nutrition, behavior change and eating disorders. Matt now devotes his practice to translating nutrition and exercise science into practical solutions. As a lead member of the GOALS team, Matt is known for his dedication to educating and empowering athletes of all backgrounds to facilitate a full and meaningful recovery from disordered eating. Matt holds a B.S. degree in Kinesiology from the Honors College at The University of Massachusetts Amherst, a master’s degree in Applied Exercise Physiology and Nutrition from Columbia University and was a dietetic intern at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.