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February 17, 2021

Podcast 111: Eating Disorders and Their Impact on Performance

Here at WHOOP, we’re always exploring how nutrition affects performance. This week’s podcast discussion dives deep on how eating disorders can negatively impact your body.

By Will Ahmed

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Allison Lynch, our Sr. Marketing Manager of Running and Women’s Performance, sits down with WHOOP VP of Performance Kristen Holmes to detail a powerful personal battle with anorexia and bulimia. Allison shares how she overcame her eating disorders, what she learned along the way, and explains just how critical good nutrition is for all athletes.

The numbers are staggering: Eating disorders are the second deadliest mental illness, only behind opioid addiction. Kristen and Allison explain why the psychology of an eating disorder is similar to substance abuse. They also examine how resilient your body can be even when it’s not getting the nutrients it needs, what intuitive eating is and why they’re big believers that it primes your body for peak performance, and how anybody can look at food and nutrition in a more positive light.

Stay healthy and stay in the green!

 

Impact of Eating Disorders on Performance Podcast Show Notes:

2:51 – An Important Discussion. “I think we often talk about the positive side and the benefits of performances, but we don’t necessarily focus on some of the darker sides of performance. We want to try and tackle eating disorders [and how it relates to] human performance,” Kristen says. “I think there’s probably not a human being on the planet who, at some point, hasn’t struggled with body issues in some way shape or form.”

5:25 – Serious Consequences. “They’re very common,” Allison says of eating disorders. “They affect 9% of the population worldwide, which is crazy to think about. … According to [The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders], 26% of those suffering from an eating disorder actually attempt suicide, which is an incredibly high rate. That does make eating disorders among the deadliest mental illnesses out there, second only to opioid overdose.”

6:43 – Suffering in Silence. “You probably know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. Even if they haven’t said anything, even if you haven’t noticed anything. … You can’t base it off the way someone looks. That goes back to why it’s rooted in mental illness first before it becomes a physical disorder.”

7:47 – Anorexia and Bulimia. Allison details her personal struggle with anorexia and bulimia, which began at the age of 16. “At a young age, I associated thinness with being a positive thing. That was a good thing. That was how I was validated.”

11:55 – Eating Disorders in Track and Field. “I think especially in track and field eating disorders are really prevalent among young girls because technically speaking the lighter you are, the faster you can go. That’s not a black or white statement, but in general a lot of these elite athletes you see, they’re pretty thin women. They’re fit, they’re lean, but thinness is definitely praised a lot in track and field. I thought that’s what my body type had to look like. I thought I had to be as skinny as possible to perform at my best and to be faster. Obviously, that wasn’t true at all, but this is what I had in my head. This goes back to how eating disorders are a mental illness. You start to develop these irrational beliefs in your head that your body is fat and the less you eat, the healthier you are.”

13:40 – Struggling with Anorexia. “It was all in my head,” Allison says. “I didn’t tell anyone else about this. I didn’t tell my friends or family. I made this commitment to myself that I was going to lose weight and that’s how I was going to be a better runner. That was how I was going to get external validation from other people. 4 months later, I had lost almost 30 pounds. I was 98 pounds. I’m 5’8, so you can imagine what that looks like. … I was surviving off of hardly anything.”

16:02 – Addiction. “Eating disorders mirror the psychology of substance abuse. People who struggle with substance abuse or alcoholism or opioid addictions, they’re in denial. They don’t think they have a problem. They live and die for their addiction. They do everything they can to feed this addiction. That’s what I was doing. I woke up and I thought about my eating disorder and I thought about calories. I isolated myself from friends and family because I didn’t want anybody to know about this. That’s how I was able to lose so much weight in such a rapid amount of time, because I had isolated myself from people.”

16:43 – Getting Help. “I was pretty much forced to go see a doctor,” Allison said. “The doctor looked at me and said, ‘If you continue down the path you’re going on, you risk severe, life-altering consequences, or you’re going to die.’”

19:07 – Understanding Eating Disorders. “At the root of eating disorders, it’s not really always about weight loss or being skinny. I think that’s a misconception. It’s rooted in a lot deeper issues. I think, for me, that was a lack of self-esteem and a lack of the ability to care for myself and love myself and accept myself for who I was. It was rooted in a deep sense of anxiety and fear that I feel like I carried around with me.”

21:36 – The Goal. “My main motivation was wanting to run again. I wasn’t going to be allowed to run until I gained a proper amount of weight back … I said, ‘Okay, if that’s what’s going to take to be able to run, I’ll gain the weight back. I’ll do what these crazy doctors are telling me and I’ll do just enough so I can start running again.’ I was 16 years old. I wasn’t thinking about the long term consequences.”

28:26 – Bulimia. Allison details how she developed bulimia in college. “I could still maintain my weight and maintain that outward, healthy experience, so to speak. But inside I was still struggling a lot. … I wasn’t treating my body with the care and respect it needed.”

30:57 – Getting Healthy. “It really was a personal choice. I was sick of living in my own prison. … I was so sick of battling myself all the time and viewing myself as inherently dysfunctional.”

32:55 – Thinking About Food Positively. “That shift in mindset can’t come from anybody else telling you, ‘You look great, you look good, don’t worry about it.’ It has to come from within.” Allison also shares her top tricks for thinking about food in a healthy manner:
1. Positive self-talk
2. Framing food in a positive light
3. Not counting calories or grams

36:19 – Intuitive Eating. Kristen and Allison discuss why they are big believers in intuitive eating and explain what you can learn about your body from it. “You’re teaching your body what it should want and what it does need. It’s a self awareness thing and it’s teaching your body what’s good for you.”

44:01 – Empowering Young Women. “We really need to speak to young girls in a different way. In a way that reinforces their identity in other things, whether that’s their schoolwork or their life skills or who they are as a person and not necessarily their appearance. We need to define what healthy means and what that looks like.”

45:43 – Education and Eating Disorders. Allison says there needs to be an increase in education surrounding eating disorders during particularly vulnerable high school and college years. “We want to set up our bodies for success. We don’t want to tear them down from the moment we’re allowed to have any sort of autonomy with our bodies. I’d really like to see a reinforced curriculum through high school and college that sets women up for success.”

 

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance. WHOOP today works with everyone from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts to executives. Ahmed has raised $200 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, and designers. He wrote “The Feedback Tool: Measuring Fitness, Intensity, and Recovery,” which sparked the underlying physiology and engineering for his work today. Ahmed was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing in the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete; he captained the Harvard Men’s Varsity Squash Team. He was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40.

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