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As an athlete, teenagers like Adelle MacDowell, a runner who lives in Johnson, are more susceptible to eating disorders at a young age.

“Actually, my eating disorder didn’t start with exercise,” MacDowell says. “For me, it was mostly about body image.”

She says her eating disorder started her freshman year of high school and she’s been struggling ever since.

“At the start of the pandemic in March, I started running. At the start, the race was really healthy. It was good for me to get out, to get away from my family, and I liked it. So it wasn’t really related to my eating disorder yet.

During this time, however, she says she was still restricting a lot, but hadn’t yet linked eating practices to her workouts. Then she realized how much faster she had gone. “Instead of saying, ‘oh, I got better because I was running so much over the spring,’ I was like, ‘I’m so much faster now that I’m leaner,’ and I sort of kept that in mind and continued to restrict throughout the summer and fall. That’s when my relationship with running really connected. It became toxic and it became inseparable from my eating disorder.

When she suffered a stress-related injury, she was unable to continue running. Although it was never officially diagnosed, she’s pretty sure it was because she wasn’t eating enough to sustain the amount of training she was doing.

Such injuries are not uncommon when it comes to eating disorders. “Girls with anorexia may be less likely to reach peak bone density and therefore may be at increased risk for osteoporosis and fractures throughout their lives,” says the National Resource Center for Bone Diseases. . It’s a problem that athletes are especially prone to, playing high-impact sport with bones that aren’t strong enough to handle the pressure they’re under.

Unable to race, MacDowell’s mental health deteriorated. She was worried she wouldn’t burn as many calories, since she couldn’t run, and that’s when she said the eating disorder and running really kicked in.

MacDowell is just one of many people struggling with eating disorders. While people from all walks of life are at risk, female athletes are among the hardest hit. In a recent National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) study, more than one in three female athletes reported symptoms that put them at risk for anorexia. This prevalence of behaviors can lead to the normalization of unhealthy eating habits within a team and these actions becoming almost contagious.

“It’s especially tough if a lot of people are struggling,” says Mae Searles, a high school runner from Lamoille County. “Because then it’s so easy to feed off of each other, which makes it worse and it just becomes a really negative cycle.”

Another runner says self-deprecating comments can unintentionally negatively impact a team. “When people say, ‘Oh, I ate so much, I have to work in this practice’ or ‘I’m glad we had a long run today because I ate so much at lunch’, it can really get inside your head,” they said.

MacDowell recounts his own experience on this subject. “I had a teammate that I was close with and we kind of perpetuated each other’s struggles with food without really knowing it.” She says she and her friend were often reminded to avoid certain foods, not to overeat, or to make sure they were training to burn off the calories they were consuming, which really prolonged the problem.

But the pressure doesn’t always come from teammates. Coaches and sponsors can also play a role in making an eating disorder worse. Mary Cain, arguably America’s fastest runner at just 17, joined Nike in 2013. She had no idea she was joining a dangerous team.

She was constantly told to lose weight, to the point that she developed osteoporosis and was at risk of infertility. “I was so scared,” she said in a New York Times op-ed. “I felt so alone. And I felt so trapped. And I started having suicidal thoughts.

When this story came to light, his trainer was indicted, and as more allegations against him emerged, he was eventually banned from coaching for life.

Other star athletes develop eating disorders even without outside stressors. Current American cross-country star Jessie Diggins has been very open about her experiences with an eating disorder. In her book, “Brave Enough,” she explains how, during her senior year of high school, the stressors in her life piled up until she felt out of control. Losing weight and being “skinny” was the only thing she could do.

These are just two of the countless stories of professional athletes who have struggled or are still struggling with eating disorders. While many praise them for being open and honest instead of hiding it in the shadows, others worry that spotlighting eating disorders may unwittingly glorify them.

One skier said her coach was actually not a big fan of Diggins for this reason and worried that other athletes would misinterpret Diggins’ message and develop their own eating disorders.

Films involving eating disorders also receive mixed reviews. ‘To the Bone’, a Netflix film about a girl struggling with anorexia, has been criticized for this very reason, after many people cited it as a way to learn new ‘tricks’ to avoid to eat. A show on Netflix about a male ballerina with bulimia called “Tiny Pretty Things” has been criticized for a similar reason.

Ultimately, whether or not the new awareness fuels the problem, there’s no denying that eating disorders are commonplace. Every varsity team I visited, as a female athlete, I heard stories about one or more athletes who had suffered from a diagnosed eating disorder. On every high school team I was on, one or more of my teammates were struggling.

Here at NVU, eating disorders are not abnormal. “I don’t have any data in front of me right now, but I think it almost comes down to most people we talk to in one way or another.” says Wellness Center staff member Kate McCarthy. “I think it’s really, really common in society in general, and in the age group that we have on a college campus, in particular.”

She goes on to explain why. “For a lot of people coming to college, this may be the first time they’ve been in an environment where they’re actually in control of their food, which could present an opportunity to restrict or binge or just to explore that relationship,” McCarthy says. “The opportunity is right there.”

National data supports this assertion. “The increased pressure and stress of school and leaving home can lead to mental health issues among students and an increased need for on-campus services,” says NEDA. “This is also a developmental time when eating disorders are likely to emerge, resurface or worsen in many young men and women. Full-fledged eating disorders usually begin between the ages of 18 and 21.

After several investigations, NEDA added that athletes were particularly at risk. McCarthy says it’s because there can be pressure to perform at a certain level. “Sometimes we might think ‘Oh, if my body weight was lower, I could perform better.’ If you’re an athlete, you probably know that’s actually not going to be very helpful. You need food to perform. But sometimes our brains get a little muddled,” she concludes. size of the population on the NVU campus, which may partly explain why eating disorders are so prevalent on campus. She adds that eating disorders are certainly not limited to athletes alone, and on a college campus, you’re likely to see it throughout the population.

Fortunately, you can ask for help, and many people recover. After his recent trip to Beijing, which included two Olympic medals to add to his collection, Diggins shares: “I wanted to address the most important point for me from the Olympics because it’s the one I needed to hear. when I was 18. I was only able to reach those starting lines because I was healthy, happy, and had a loving, supportive team around me. Listening to my body and taking good care of it isn’t something I’ve always done, but getting help for my eating disorder and learning to accept my strengths instead of always trying to be “perfect” is why I run still today. .”

Here at Johnson, MacDowell’s relationship with racing is also on the mend. “I went for a run for the first time in months yesterday,” she says. “It was a really easy race, and it was so beautiful. And then I realized after the race that I hadn’t thought about my pace and burning calories. It wasn’t even part of my plan for the day. I just ran because I wanted to run.