By Sean Zucker –
Diet and exercise have long been identified as two components of a healthy lifestyle. For athletes, the importance of diet may be amplified given the energy they exert to achieve their goals. Problems, however, may occur when dieting is taken to unhealthy extremes by eating too little or consuming the wrong foods. A new study warns that athletes who mismanage their diets are at significant risk of mental health problems.
Researchers at Stanford University dove into this issue when they conducted a cross-sectional survey to assess the relationship between athletes’ nutrition and anxiety and depression. The survey covered more than 1,000 individuals, including 780 female respondents. All participants were either high school, collegiate or post-collegiate athletes. The average age was 33 for men and 30 for women. Less than 10 percent were under the age of 18.
The survey focused on each participant’s history with bone stress injuries, eating disorders and overall training. It also examined each athlete’s daily eating behaviors. After collecting this information, the respondents were asked about their emotional distress, depression and anxiety.
The results showed a strong correlation between all athletes suffering from moderate to severe depression and anxiety and those under-fueling. Under-fueling is defined as not eating enough of the right foods or not eating enough. This issue is linked to how professionals address and treat mental health in athletes, according to the study’s lead author Dr. Emily Miller Olson.
“If they’re being seen for bone stress injuries, if they have been talking to their providers about low energy, et cetera, it may be worth talking to a psychologist or a therapist as they’re working through all of this to come back in a healthier state overall,” she explained.
“Through our medical training, we know about this relationship of anxiety and depression with eating disorders. But we noticed that it hadn’t been studied in the athletic population before,” Miller added when speaking to Women’s Running.
While the Stanford study focused on athletes in their thirties, previous research indicates these findings could be applied to mature adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly two-thirds of American adults over the age of 50 have remained active to some degree beyond basic movements needed to perform daily activities.
“There’s a powerful myth that getting older means getting decrepit,” Dr. Chhanda Dutta, chief of the Clinical Gerontology Branch at the National Institute on Aging, explained to WebMD. “It’s not true. Some people in their 70s, 80s and 90s are running marathons and becoming bodybuilders.” And for good reason. Regular exercise significantly improves health and helps lower the risk of several age-related conditions like memory loss and dementia, the health site states.
A separate study courtesy of the World Psychiatric Association helped underscore the exercise and diet relationship. It noted that more than 20 percent of people aged 55 or older may have some mental health problem. However, these problems don’t provide an excuse to avoid exercising. It underscores the need to pay sufficient attention to maintaining a healthy diet when working out.
“Being a couch potato is more dangerous than being physically active,” Dutta stressed.