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TW: Disordered eating, anxiety

My Journey:

When I sat down to write my last article for this amazing internship, I felt compelled to discuss my journey with food, anxiety, and elite sports. It is something that I am very passionate about and experienced first-hand. Eating disorders can affect anyone, even elite athletes. This is going to be different from my other articles, so please bear with me. If I can help even one person who is struggling by raising awareness, then it is worth the discomfort of “putting myself out there”. 

My Story:

I started judo when I was three years old. My parents put me into a program at the local YMCA because I was atrocious at gymnastics and my parents didn’t like that they weren’t allowed in the room (thank you mom and dad!). I fell in love with judo. I spent years of my childhood excelling at one, single technique. It worked in competition almost exclusively, so I didn’t really have to expand my repertoire. Traveling to judo tournaments and competing was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, and I became hooked on the challenge and adrenaline that it provided. My parents took me to all of the local and  national tournaments, and invested so much time, money, and support. This is something that I will be eternally grateful for because it has provided me with the most priceless experiences of my life.

4 Year Old Lauren

Struggle with Weight Classes:

As with wrestling, there are weight classes in judo. I grew up with this concept, so the idea behind it didn’t really phase me at the time. When I was younger, I would weigh-in for a tournament and not give a second thought about it. As I got older, I slowly started to notice the number on the scale more and more. As you can see from the pictures in this article, I do not have the stature of someone who is “petite”. I grew up having muscles from my early years in judo, and they only became more pronounced as I hit puberty and continued to increase the intensity of my workouts. I would look around at my fellow classmates and friends, and I was bigger and more muscled than all of them. This became a huge insecurity for me. I loved being strong and I wanted to be the best athlete ever. However, I started to become obsessed with how I looked and what food I was eating. People would comment on how strong I looked, or how big my muscles were, and it only caused my insecurity to grow. 

My -63 Kg Journey:

I started competing in the -63 Kg category in 8th grade. I vividly remember competing in Belgium (my first international tournament) at my new weight category, and taking bronze. I was absolutely ecstatic. I continued to fight -63 Kg until the year I retired from the sport, which was in 2020. I fought in the same weight category from the age 13 until I was 21 years old. From a nutrition/growth standpoint, that is absolutely insane. 

The Beginning:

As the years went on, it became harder and harder for me to make weight. As I went through puberty and menstruation, naturally my body gained weight. My body started to develop further, and I put on more muscle than I had ever had before. However, I was finding exhilarating success fighting in the -63 Kg division, and I had no intention of moving up. 

Words Can Hurt:

Other competitors and their coaches/parents would always comment on how lean and strong I was for the division. They would tell me how it was not sustainable, and how I would probably move out of their child’s division in a couple months. The overly competitive person that I am saw that as a challenge. I would make -63 Kg for the rest of my athletic career because I deemed that as being successful.

Training at the OTC

My Struggle with Disordered Eating:

My relationship with food started to take a turn for the worse when it became harder for me to make weight. I was starting to have to cut upwards of 7-10 pounds in my last couple years of competing. I was someone with a very low body fat percentage, so this was no easy task. I already was undereating, so this took it to new extremes. I was never very honest about how much food I was eating or what my starting weight was. I knew that with enough discipline, I could make it. But at what expense? I started to ask my boyfriend at the time whether I looked fat. If you called him up right now, he would tell you that 95% of our conversations revolved around food, and how it related to my appearance. I can confidently say that my obsession with food restriction severely impacted my relationships with my friends, family, and previous boyfriend. I hated being asked to go out to eat because I could not control how my food was made. I used to get so mad when my boyfriend wanted to get takeout or go out to eat. He slowly became sick of answering my anxiety-induced, weight-related questions. It had insidiously taken over my life.

3 Week Europe Trip. I had to make weight three times that trip.

The Landslide:

My Judo career started to go downhill as my anxiety and food-restriction increased. I was obsessed with every single thing that I ate. I would spend hours watching “What I Eat in a Day” videos on YouTube and scrolling through my Instagram feed to try to compare my diet to that of influencers. However, I was an elite athlete. My nutritional needs for someone of my weight, height, and activity level was extremely unique. Trying to match my diet to those who are different was not the answer. I needed to find a solution because the path that I was on was not sustainable. 

The Pandemic:

As with the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic took the sports world by storm. The Olympics were postponed, practices canceled, and everything went on lockdown. There was so much uncertainty brewing in the world. The pandemic gave me a reprieve from training two times a day, six days a week. I was able to spend time with friends for the first time in my life. My whole life did not revolve around Judo, and I secretly enjoyed it. As the pandemic stretched on, I realized that I was content with not doing Judo. I enjoyed the freedom that I felt. During this time, I started to pursue my BS in nutrition. I started to attend therapy for my anxiety and began the road to developing a healthier relationship with food. I am not going to say that it was a perfect journey. There were days where I struggled really hard. I felt alone and isolated. I was an elite athlete who worked full-time, trained full-time, and was a full-time student. I wanted control and perfection in all aspects of my life. My work and school were thriving, and my relationship with food started to improve.

6 Month Transformation post retirement.

Nutrition is Unique:

As I continued on my mental health and food journey, I became more and more passionate about nutrition. I wanted to help other elite athletes and women in sports who struggled with the same things that I did. I started to make posts on Instagram that promoted strong females in sports. I wanted to bring awareness that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. Just because someone does not look the same as you, does not mean that they are lesser. Our bodies are unique, powerful, and strong. As I continued on with my school, I learned how vast nutrition really is. Every single person is unique, and nutrition is something that is extremely personal to each individual. 

Continuous Journey:

Fast forward two years later. I am currently finishing up my last semester at ASU. I have not competed in Judo for two years, or weighed myself. I am finally giving my body the fuel that it needs. I have made some amazing friends, who I can now go out with and enjoy food without the added anxiety. I am stronger than I have ever been. My workouts are more intense because I am properly fueling my body.

I slowly started to feel more confident in my new body.

Importance of Creating Awareness:

I wanted to tell my story because I know that I am not alone. Social media is more prevalent in our society than ever. People are constantly being bombarded with information and posts that set the base for comparison. It is so easy to see a picture of someone, and make narrow-sighted comparisons. I want to promote a culture that fosters strength, health, and food freedom. 

Ending the Stigma Around Eating Disorders:

I want you to know that you are not alone. If you are feeling down because your arms don’t fit in a certain shirt, I see you. If you are feeling anxious about going out to eat with friends because you cannot control the food, I see you. If you express your anxiety about food and are shot down by others, I see you. Your feelings are valid. Let’s create a culture of acceptance and growth. We need to be here for each other more than ever. We need to support the importance of being unique, strong individuals who have different needs. 

My last competition

Thank you for letting me share my journey with you, dear reader. It is a piece of the puzzle on my ongoing journey to living a happier, healthier life.

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Lauren De Smidt

Lauren is a senior at Arizona State University pursuing her BS in nutritional science. Lauren was a competitive judo athlete for twenty years, ranked number one in her division as part of Team USA. Additionally, Lauren is an Assistant Store Manager at Starbucks and is part of their Elite Athlete Program. In her free time, this badass woman loves to read, workout, and cook. Lauren currently lives in Wisconsin with her Bengal Kitten, Casteel.

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