How High-Level CrossFit Affects Body Image and Eating Disorders
There’s no question that elite athletes–whether in football, gymnastics, racquetball, or CrossFit–use every possible aspect of their lives as an opportunity to get better. Nutrition, of course, is a big player in this. And while we (as normal people) may look at those at the top of our sport and see the cleanest, “healthiest” style of eating, the control and constant comparison can cause crippling anxiety and difficult relationships with their bodies and food.
The most recent example of this on everyone’s mind is Haley Adams’ graceful exit from the 2023 CrossFit Games season. The 22-year-old shocked the CrossFit world when she announced last Thursday in an Instagram post that she is taking the year off to find herself again after struggling for years with an eating disorder and related issues.
Adams is not the only top-level woman in the sport to experience this battle. Recently in an episode of their podcast “Dottir,” two-time champions Annie Thorisdottir and Katrin Davidsdottir opened up about the pressures of looking like the Fittest on Earth and how it might’ve hurt their physical and mental progress.
- “I started feeling the pressure of being the Fittest on Earth,” Davidsdottir said in the podcast. “I was so scared people would see me and be like, ‘oh, that’s not how the Fittest on Earth should look.’”
These issues go beyond just the women’s side of the leaderboard, however. Marcus Filly, a four-time Games athlete (including a 12th-place finish in the Men’s division at the 2016 Games) has struggled with similar issues his entire life. Going back to a mean comment made during his sophomore year of college on the soccer team, Filly has always been focused on getting lean and having the best possible physique.
- Filly: “It drove me down some pretty bad paths, one of deprivation, injury, and depression, which I had to navigate through over the years.”
However, when Filly retired from competitive soccer and became consumed with competing in CrossFit, these thoughts changed. He became more focused on eating and exercising to reach peak performance, and though he recognized himself as one of the leaner athletes in the field, he certainly didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. In these earlier years of elite competition, extreme leanness was more prevalent than it is even now, something Filly is very aware of.
- “It wasn’t appreciated as it is now that extreme levels of leanness don’t equate to very good or optimal performance,” Filly said. “A lot of us had come out of the CrossFit dietary culture like Paleo and Zone which were relatively low carb and hyper-focused on a zone diet prescription that was grossly underfeeding people.”
Despite this, Filly doesn’t believe that the ripped, ultra-lean field was purposeful – it was probably just an effect of training to be the Fittest on Earth in 2015.
Now retired from competitive CrossFit and focused on his own company–Functional Bodybuilding–his family, and health, Filly can look back on his journey with food with a new perspective. He’s had to work through beginning to eat “normally” but still isn’t sure exactly how the CrossFit and fitness community can prevent eating issues like his in the future.
- “We want to honor that ability to perform, but we don’t want to go all the way on that side of the coin either,” Filly said. “There’s probably a balance between encouraging people to find a formula in their life that allows them to move and give forth physical effort in a way that feels empowering.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please call or text (800)931-2237 or visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline.