the HAES® files: The HAES Paradigm in a Weight-Centric Sport—Is that an oxymoron?

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Michelle Pitman, Certified Personal Trainer

JudoAs I write this article, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has named Tokyo the host city to the 2020 Olympics and also announced the return of wrestling as part of the 2020 Olympic program (it had been removed after London 2012). The mere mention of athletic events, particularly the Olympics, ignites something in me. I’m reminded of my former life as a competitive athlete: the ups, the downs and the choices I made that had me continually beating my body into submission.

My sport was judo, a martial art and competitive event with weight divisions used to classify athletes into categories where there is an even playing field amongst the competitors. Judo (translation: The Gentle Way), along with other martial arts, is often considered more than just a sport. It is a way of life that not only builds strength but self-discipline, patience and character too. But as a sport where “making weight” is part of the culture, judo can be anything but gentle!

JudoIt’s been estimated that disordered eating is seen in anywhere between 16-52% of athletes. For athletes in a weight-class sport, it is estimated to be higher. In a March 2010 study on the prevalence, magnitude and methods of rapid weight loss among judo competitors, it was reported that 86-89% of judo athletes resort to drastic measures to lose weight quickly for competition. That is certainly not surprising to me having been a competitor who went to extreme measures to lose up to as much as 2 kilograms within a 48-hour period:

  • Severely limit food intake
  • Restrict all fluids
  • Wear garbage bags while sitting and jumping around in the sauna for an hour
  • Intake an obscene amount of laxatives (even though laxative and diuretics were considered banned substances)

I often wonder would things have been different had I chosen a different path. Could I have avoided an eating disorder? Could I have made the Canadian Olympic team? Instead of taking the advice of my coaches to lose the extra weight to get to that lighter division and allowing my teen-aged body to continue to grow, could I have been successful in my sport anyway?

And now that I’m a part of this wonderful ASDAH community, implementing the HAES® principles throughout my personal and professional life, I can’t help but wonder if there is room for a HAES approach in a weight-obsessed sporting environment. Let me be more direct…

In sports where the use of scales and weight control is so prevalent, how do we move the culture from a Win At All Costs mentality to a Health At Every Size® everyday practice? Is that even possible?

Attending the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) conference in Toronto this past spring, I listened in on a panel discussion of university coaches discussing the problem of eating disorders among athletes. Their commentary was a stark reminder of what I had struggled with so long ago and what inevitably ended my judo career. Two things stood out to me as the panelists spoke:

  1. As much as there was great dialogue on how to help athletes with eating disorders, there was no representation for any weight-class sports such as judo, other martial arts or wrestling.
  2. As a sports community, we are still stumped! Many questions are still left unanswered.

Suggestions from the panelists and audience members included:

  • Understanding the high-performance athlete mentality of perfectionism and taking it to extremes (“thinner is better,” “less calories is better”). I suppose, taking from the wisdom of Judith Matz, this would be equivalent to meeting your athlete where they are now.
  • Policy change is needed to make a cultural shift within sports.

No argument here! A huge cultural shift is needed in all sports, from governing bodies to coaching staff and the athletes themselves. Change has been slow in this area to say the least. Do we have to wait until someone dies before doing something about it?! The death of a South Korean judoka (judo player) in 1996, may have made some folks sit up and take notice but did nothing to spur on change within the International Judo Federation (IJF). But, wait a second!!

judo 1I stumbled upon a May 2010 article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition – The need of a weight management control program in judo: a proposal based on the successful case of wrestling. The article describes a successful “weight-management control” program developed by the US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) whereby certain policies were put in place to mitigate drastic weight-loss measures taken by wrestlers. The program was created as a result of the 1997 deaths of three college wrestlers “due to rapid weight loss regimes.”

The author suggests “the most effective way to prevent athletes from reducing weight harmfully is through the use of strict regulations.” Rules and penalties are all well and good to deter athletes but what happens before and after they step off the competition floor?

An interpretation of the HAES principles for the athlete in a weight-class sport

A preventive education approach is paramount to helping athletes navigate their way through the choices they make related to the weight at which they compete. I think there is room for a HAES approach by adapting key concepts to the athletic mentality:

  • Acknowledging that every body is unique! Suggesting an individual drop a weight class could be counterproductive to athletic performance in the short term and most definitely counterproductive to their health in the long term.
  • Examining alternative ways to increase an individual’s competitive advantage, such as creating a holistic program that covers sports performance needs of improving strength and power, developing mental toughness, addressing underlying issues in other areas of the athlete’s life that could potentially impact performance.
  • Educating about nutritional requirements for optimal performance in a positive, non-judgmental way. Teach athletes about Intuitive Eating so they can recognize how their bodies feel when they eat certain foods before, during and after practice and competition.
  • Recognizing that at the end of the day, only a select few will make it to the elite level. Help athletes see the fun in their sport EVERYDAY. Because when the lights dim on their athletic career they should be left with a sense of love and appreciation for all that sport did for them, not just in body but in mind and spirit too.

I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. I’m not even sure I have any of the answers. But I’m curious what the HAES community thinks. Is it possible to have HAES concepts embedded in an athletic culture where an individual’s weight is at the forefront?

Michelle PitmanMichelle Pitman, of Define Me Personal Training, is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and athlete who believes that EVERYONE should feel good from the inside-out.  With over 15 years experience, Michelle has coached and inspired others in realizing their goals. She does so with a sense of dedication, presence and, above all, compassion.  You can connect with Michelle via FacebookTwitter or by visiting the Define Me webpage.

11 Comments to “the HAES® files: The HAES Paradigm in a Weight-Centric Sport—Is that an oxymoron?”

  1. Michelle, thank you for bringing such an interesting topic to the blog! Sports nutrition and the athletic mind-set is an area I know very little about, I appreciate hearing your thoughts. It is hard for me to imagine how HAES can become more prevalent in a sports culture that prizes winning over everything else.It reminds me of how impossible HAES can seem to someone for whom weight loss is the most important thing. I don’t have any answers either but I hope we can all support our sports oriented HAES colleagues as well all try and improve this situation

    • Thanks Lisa! Having the support and expertise of the HAES community makes me think it is possible. It might be a long road but I’m optimistic the sporting world will one day get there 🙂

    • Thanks Lisa! Having the support and expertise of the HAES community makes me believe it is possible. It might be a long road but I’m optimistic that the sporting world will one day get there 🙂

  2. I have a competitive background in MuayThai and I saw a lot of disordered eating being encouraged. I spent 2 years living and training in Thailand and my caucasian body was treated as problematic, as were those of many other athletes I met (I knew one established fighter in a rural area who was told he should only eat an egg and a serve of ovaltine per day until he lost his “fat” – despite that he was in peak condition and training hard 3-4 hours per day). In Australia some very unhealthy practices were also the status quo. This was about 6 years ago so hopefully things have changed. I feel that with with popularity of combat sports increasing, regulation and education will increase. Knowledge is power. Coaches should be educating themselves about the science behind their sports and referring athletes to dietitians, not dishing out traditional dieting advice. I like your suggestions at the end of your article and I think they’re on-target. I think you can still have weight categories and be HAES if power-to-weight is seen more holistically – and more realistically. Athletes are likely to perform better when they’re not recovering from dehydration and don’t have depleted glycogen stores, but sometimes this is overlooked!

    I have a feeling that the more traditional martial arts may be slower to move on the HAES front as a lot of the training practices are based on tradition, not science, and people can be reluctant to move away from tradition for fear of diluting the sport. Again I can only speak for MuayThai but “traditional” practice in some Thai gyms was to not drink water during training sessions for example. I’m optimistic that with increased mainstream popularity and competition will come increased scientific evaluation of training behaviours and practices which will lead to healthier outcomes for athletes. Great article!

    • Well said, Shelley! I agree traditions of those martial arts that have been around longer will be slower to change. It’s interesting to see another competitor express similar concerns/experiences.

  3. it feels to me that weight loss dieting is contrary to the philosophy of the “gentle way” of judo! This article is very interesting and well written. I love that the photos have people of color, esp. women of color. I don’t think I’ve ever seen martial arts photos of a woman of color with any other article EVER before in my life. Thank you!

  4. Thank you E-K! These pics were from the London Olympics. It was important for me to show diversity because most of us judoka, regardless of body size or skin color, were still sharing a similar experience as it related to competition and weight loss.

  5. Loved reading this! My sport wasn’t weight based (soccer) and so I hadn’t thought of this perspective before. my brother & family train in Judo and Kung Fu, so I’ll have to pass this on to them, also. Very good questions you raise and as a Wellness Coach I really appreciate you bringing this to light. Going to re-blog!

  6. Reblogged this on BraveGirl Coaching and commented:
    Wonderful article on HAES & weight based sports.

  7. Thankyou so much Michelle. As a HAES Practitioner and Sports Dietitian here in Australia working with such elite athletes as Jockeys and lightweight rowers I have been having some difficulty packaging these together. It is only recently I have come to find a framework for myself that is working OK (that lets me leverage the change I can influence without getting upset at the things that are not going to shift anytime soon!). Thankyou for your personal and professional thoughts, this gives me a real sense of support in a very challenging area of work. I always say “chip chip chip away” and for the Jockey program, we are really getting somewhere – with our program, not the culture 😦 Look forward to staying in touch.

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