Athletes and Nutrition: The Oregon Ducks Track Scandal
By Maura Donovan, MS, RD, LDN, CPT
In recent months, six female former University of Oregon track athletes have come forward to share their stories of how they were body-shamed, humiliated, and bullied into disordered eating habits. The Oregon Ducks are given tri-yearly DEXA scans – which measure bone strength – in order to assess their body composition and get a “starting value” for the athlete’s training program. Robert Johnson, a nine-year coach for Oregon Track and Field, believes that an athlete’s body fat percentage is a “key performance indicator” and therefore should be monitored and controlled tightly.
Johnson argues that his approach is based on science but unfortunately, what this coach is showcasing is his personal opinion. The sad reality is that the consequences of this opinion, which is not uncommon in the world of sports, can be deadly. We know this from an established evidence-base of research on disordered eating and eating disorders in sport.
Athletes are at risk for eating disorders
Athletes in all sports at all levels of competition are at risk for disordered eating or clinical eating disorders, with the highest prevalence documented among those who participate in sports that encourage leanness, including Track and Cross Country. Forcing athletes to undergo body composition assessments under the assumption that they will then either attempt to lower, or maintain, an unhealthy body fat percentage is setting up athletes for failure. Restricting food intake and enforcing extra work-outs — the protocol put in place under Johnson’s watch in Oregon — sabotages an athlete’s performance. Under-fueling and/or over-training can lead to Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), which can have harmful consequences to athletes’ physical and mental health, as well as their performance abilities.
Inadequate energy intake (a.k.a. dieting) and exercising too frequently or intensely can cause the symptoms of RED-S to appear. When these are ignored and an athlete exists in a culture of fear that mandates achieving lower body fat, it is near impossible for that individual to break the cycle and return to normal eating and exercise patterns, which further accelerates the risk of developing an eating disorder. A former Ducks track athlete stated, “I started worrying a lot about what I was eating…I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to get too much bigger of a percentage.” When athletes are made to fear their own bodies’ response to food and worry incessantly about what they are eating, it can take away their focus from school, friends, family, health risks, and even their sport. Johnson claims he and the teams at Oregon are taking the “scientific approach, “when in reality they are creating the perfect storm for RED-S, eating disorders, and other co-occurring psychological health issues.
One of the frustrating aspects of RED-S for athletes is that the condition can cause a decrease in their athletic performance. This can result in a vicious cycle perpetuating the faulty belief that their over-fat weight status is the cause; this often results in a doubling down on efforts to over-train and under-eat which in reality only makes matters worse. In order for athletes to gain muscle mass, they must be taking in a sufficient amount of fuel in the form of food. In the end, the entirely weight-focused strategy is counterproductive to performance goals and is almost guaranteed to backfire.
The clearest message we should be sending to athletes is that they should be focusing on nourishing their bodies through adequate nutrition, no matter their body size or shape. Adequate fueling and proper training (including rest days) can keep an athlete injury-free, performing well, and can help prevent psychological health diagnoses.
Athletes should know that:
Body composition is not a primary indicator of performance in sport
Lighter does not equal faster
Your body is meant to change throughout your life (especially during high school and college)
Body fat is essential and performs many protective functions for health
College athletes or high school athletes are not expected to look like, train like, eat like, or perform like professional athletes
The stories of these six track athletes from Oregon are sadly not unique. There are numerous other examples involving a variety of athletes of different genders, in different sports and at different levels of competition, where the faulty belief systems of coaches or judges put their health and well-being at risk. This reality highlights the need for more education around the harm of subjecting athletes to weight-based assessments and the need for athletes to have access to nutrition and mental health professionals inside the sport environment. Athletics departments should have zero tolerance for the toxic culture that ignores science and research evidence, and must be held accountable for their failures to prioritize their athlete’s safety and wellness.
Walden’s GOALS Intensive Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatment Program is built specifically for adult athletes (18+) who need guidance on how best to optimize the balance between nutritional needs and performance goals. Click here to learn more about this innovative program.