The biggest problem is the idea that you have to have a certain look to be a runner, and if you don’t look like that specific body type, then you aren’t a good runner. That’s starting to change. But in general, there’s an idea that you can be a recreational runner and have any type of body, but if you’re in the pros, you have to be very small with a very low body fat percentage. It’s damaging because it’s not true.
FF: How should we talk about bodies and weight?
Featherstone: Know that there’s never really a good time to comment on someone’s body. Rather than saying hey, you look like you lost weight or gained weight, focus on who people are rather than what they look like. Commenting on someone’s weight often reinforces weight loss and stereotypes.
Unfortunately, some coaches give nutrition advice to athletes when they aren’t trained dieticians. They don’t know everything about their athletes’ nutritional needs.
FF: What is problematic about labeling foods as inherently good or bad?
Featherstone: Diet talk is toxic. We know that a diet is the impetus of a majority of eating disorders. When we’re modeling diet behavior, that impacts our mental health and the mental health of those around us. What we say impacts how we feel and behave. What we tell other people and ourselves impacts our entire lives.
Diet culture is rooted in shame. Shame greatly impacts mental health and can lead to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation and withdrawal.
On top of that, young athletes will hear a runner call certain food “junk” and think, I can’t enjoy Doritos, I can’t eat “junk.” I have to be disciplined with food if I want to run like a pro athlete.
FF: How might it be harmful for coaches to give diet advice?
Featherstone: Some coaches give nutrition advice to athletes when they aren’t trained dieticians. They don’t know everything about their athletes’ nutritional needs. In the worst cases, a runner ends up with an eating disorder when given poor nutrition advice from their coach. These are the types of athletes I often see.
I’ve had a lot of patients with electrolyte imbalances because their coaches told them to cut out sugar and processed foods and salty foods. I had an athlete whose coach said things like, ‘any time you have sugar you will run an extra mile at practice.’ As a result, she was experiencing heart failure because she wasn’t getting enough electrolytes. She heard ‘sugary things’ and interpreted that as fruit, Gatorade. She assumed those things were ‘junk food.’ Her coach doesn’t know about her heart condition and he’s not trained to give nutrition advice.