Did you ever think that eating healthfully could lead to a very unhealthy lifestyle? Dancers often strive to perfect the imperfect. In fact, perfectionism is known to be common among dancers. Though this demanding mindset helps to fuel motivation, it can lead to burnout, especially when goals reflect impossible standards.
When perfectionism is combined with a culture hyper-focused on health, wellness, and body aesthetics, dancers become vulnerable to unsustainable habits around food. This article will uncover the truths behind disordered eating among dancers, including the statistics, the risks, the signs, and the steps to combat such behaviors.
Disordered eating among dancers- the statistics
First, let’s review a few important dancer-specific statistics that you need to know about:
- Dancers have a three times higher risk of suffering from eating disorders.
- Most dancers are struggling with body dissatisfaction solely because of studio environments.
- When compared to the general population, dancers are more prone to restriction and a drive for thinness.
- More than 1 in 2 female dancers and 1 in 3 male dancers do not meet their energy needs.
- Disordered eating is asscoiated with injuries in dancers.
The signs of disordered eating
The signs of an eating disorder are clearly outlined in the DSM-5 to decipher between the various types of eating disorders. These include:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Binge eating disorder
- Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
- Other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED)
But what about disordered eating? There is no official set of diagnostic criteria set forth to identify and diagnose disordered eating. This is especially challenging since diet culture normalizes disordered eating habits like food restrictions and over-exercise. Here is a list of signs that may reflect disordered eating:
- Above-average and obsessive concern about one’s health.
- Above-average and obsessive concern about ingredients or how food is prepared.
- Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels.
- Difficulty with eating foods outside a narrow list of foods deemed “healthy” or “clean.”
- Cutting out an increasing number of foods and/or food groups from one’s diet (ie. sugar, dairy, carbs).
- Exemplifying high or abnormal levels of distress when ‘safe,’ ‘healthy,’ or ‘clean’ foods aren’t available.
- High levels of interest and critique in what others are eating.
- Inability to attend events where food will be served or the need to pack ‘safe’ foods for an event.
- The need to measure, weigh, or obsessively portion food prior to eating.
- High levels of body dissatisfaction or comparative body thoughts or comments.
What is Orthorexia?
Orthorexia is the term used to represent the obsession with healthy eating. Unlike other eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa and Bulemia Nervosa, there are no official criteria set forth in the medical literature to diagnose orthorexia. But health professionals recognize that obsessive patterns around food are unhealthy and have even proposed diagnostic criteria for the condition.
What Causes Orthorexia?
Dancers are especially at risk for orthorexia given the need to balance the principles of sports nutrition while immersed in a culture inundated with unrealistic body ideals. A preoccupation with food can start as early as childhood, especially when parental control around mealtimes is high. Any limitation, restriction, or condition placed upon food will ignite this preoccupation. Social media feeds, such as Instagram, have even been shown to increase one’s chances of developing disordered eating habits like orthorexia.
When I was dancing full time, I attended a workshop hosted by a self-proclaimed nutritionist and health coach. Though their intent was to educate us dancers about nutrition, their approach was centered around clean eating. I took their information and, well… my perfectionism ran with it. Before I knew it, I was obsessed with eating “clean.” Within a month, my “healthy” habits turned into a very unhealthy and restrictive lifestyle.
I feel very grateful for the journey that led me to where I am today, not just as a dancer and intuitive eater, but also as a non-diet dietitian and counselor of Intuitive Eating. But it wasn’t always like that. Disordered eating happens to be more common among Registered Dietitians (I will admit that initially, studying nutrition only escalated my symptoms). Though never officially diagnosed, I knew that my obsession with “healthy” eating was problematic. It took me years to learn how to separate my perfectionism from my eating habits. In fact, it’s the reason why I decided to transition from professional dancer to Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and certified counselor of Intuitive Eating.
The link between dieting and orthorexia
Intentional food restrictions and under-fueling lead to over-thinking. When we categorize food as being “good” or “bad,” we become overwhelmed with external cues dictating what we “should” and “shouldn’t” eat. This ultimately drives motivation for those options that we avoid (most often these are processed foods that are higher in carbs, sugar, and fat) and fuels a pendulum of feeling very out of control around food. Classic disordered eating, such as striving for a “clean” diet 100% of the time or following any form of restrictive dieting, is very much glorified on our culture. This glorification is often enticing to dancers, especially when performance benefits are promised. A few other reasons why a dancer might lean towards orthorexic behaviors include:
- A medical diagnosis (such as Diabetes or Celiac disease) that might require a higher level of awareness over ingredients.
- A food allergy.
- Misinformation, such as that from unqualified “nutritionists” and coaches (did you know that anyone can call themselves a nutritionist or nutrition expert? That doesn’t mean they’re a dietitian or licensed to practice).
How is orthorxia different from anoerxia?
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, anorexia nervosa is characterized by weight loss; difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight for height, age, and stature; and, in many individuals, distorted body image. To be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, a specific set of criteria must be met, including:
- Inadequate food intake that doesn’t meet the body’s needs for metabolic and physical functioning.
- Overwhelming fear of gaining weight.
- Extreme association between self-worth and body weight.
Many similarities exist between orthorexia and anorexia nervosa, including the generalized desire to utilize food as a tool to control one’s body and/or health. However, orthorexia prioritizes pure/clean foods in attempt to achieve a culturally constructed version of health, while anorexia prioritizes calorie restriction in attempt to lose weight. Someone with orthorexia may not be restricting calories nor striving for weight loss, but those may still apparent.
It’s important to realize that eating disorders do not have a “look” and cannot be diagnosed just by looking at someone. Anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening condition that must be diagnosed by a licensed medical doctor.
What are the risks of disordered eating for dancers?
Disordered eating and orthorexia sacrifice so much of a dancer’s well-being. Dancers may experience:
- Physical injury
- Mental burnout
- Social isolation
- Emotional distress
- Metabolic impairments like a slowed metabolism (to learn more about your metabolism, click here).
- Muscle loss (and a decrease in overall strength)
- Diminished endurance capacity
How do I know if my eating habits are disordered?
I encourage any dancer who is struggling in their relationship with food to seek support from a licensed professional. But there are a few common characteristics that may reflect orthorexic tendencies.
Overwhelming Concern Over Food Quality
Do you feel anxious about eating something without knowing every ingredient? While we can utilize nutrition information in a way that supports informed decisions at mealtimes, obsessing over ingredients and/or number is never helpful.
Obsessive Thoughts about food and exercise
It’s common for dancers to develop an interest in nutrition, especially as a tool to optimize performance. But if those thoughts become overwhelming, problems arise. Regimens like “clean eating” can set the stage for obsessive patterns.
Negative Body Image
Similar to those diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, dancers with orthorexia often experience extreme levels of body dissatisfaction. This might involve seeing oneself as being “over”-weight or being told (even from a medical professional or dance educator) that you are “over”-weight and/or need to lose weight. Generally, dancers who struggle with orthorexia intertwine their self-worth with their body size.
Inflexible Eating Patterns
Those with orthorexia often struggle to eat foods that they don’t prepare themselves. Due to severely rigid diet rules, they may avoid meals completely if not presented with a choice that has been deemed “healthy” or “safe.” They may also feel it necessary to prepare and bring personal food to events.
Emotional Distress When Food Rules Are Broken
Food rules are rigid standards that involve the omitting of specific foods and/or food groups (examples include eliminating sugar, carbs, dairy, meat, non-organic options). Choices are important, but rules are unsustainable. A person with orthorexia may feel extreme guilt, shame, anger, and sadness if self-imposed rules are broken.
Severe Concern Over Your Health and Performance
A person with orthorexia is unable to enjoy food for the experience. Instead, the sole purpose of eating is to gain a nutritional and/or performance benefit.
What should I do if I suspect disordered eating?
When eating habits become either too healthy or centered around a specific diet (like intermittent fasting), they disrupt other aspects of life. The inability to engage in social situations, such as a friend’s birthday dinner, is just one sign that eating habits may be disordered. If your decisions around food seem inflexible, then you’ll want to reassess your goals. Are you looking to use food as a tool to shrink your body or are you looking to use food as a tool to enhance your performance? The latter will require a non-diet approach that integrates the principles of intuitive eating and performance nutrition. Consider speaking to a licensed clinician who specializes in disordered eating behaviors, such as a registered dietitian nutritionist. Here are a few helpful articles to kickstart your journey towards healing from disordered eating:
- How to create a healthy relationship with food.
- A dancer’s guide to food flexibility.
- The truth about clean eating?