Restrict, Fight, Binge, Repeat: A Former Fighter’s Relationship with Food

This post details my individual experience as a former fighter who has struggled with disordered eating before, during and after their fight career.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with food.

I grew up watching my mother constantly express dissatisfaction with her body. On days where she’d only eaten fruit or a tuna salad, she’d describe herself as ‘being good’. Later, she’d lament over how much she’d binged, how much weight she’d gained, and how she really had to stop this time. Every vacation or special occasion was (and still is) preceded by a period of weight loss. It was a cycle of shame, which I inevitably emulated. Neither of us had the tools or resources to know any better at the time.

Growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s didn’t help, either. It was a particularly terrible time for body image, where diet culture was rife, the media was full of before and after pictures, and terms like ‘heroin chic’ were in. There was always a new type of fad diet, and a common topic of conversation was whatever you were not eating at the time. My first attempts to diet began in my early teens, and while studying at university, I found myself in the grips of an eating disorder.

By the time I’d discovered Muay Thai at 22, I felt as though I’d recovered. In reality, my eating disorder showed up in different ways, but they were accepted as part of the fighter’s lifestyle. More than a decade later, I’m still struggling with the effects.

How Fighting Affected My Relationship with Food

Fighting didn’t cause my poor relationship with food, but it certainly exacerbated it.

All or Nothing Approach

I’ve often described myself as an ‘all or nothing’ kind of person. When I’m training, everything in my life is centred around that. I listen to my hunger cues, make sure I get enough sleep, and practice self-care. Training is my anchor. When I don’t have it, things start to drift out of my grasp. The first thing to escape me is always my eating habits.

This is part of what made me so obsessive about my training and diet when I was fighting. I needed to have that control. On days when I was unable to get to the gym, I was riddled with anxiety. To avoid that feeling, I would turn down invitations to eat out or take trips. Nothing could get in the way of my precious routine.

Being ‘all in’ while I was fighting meant having to go ‘all out’ when I wasn’t, whether or not that was what my body wanted. Having this mindset meant I was always swinging between two extremes. There was no such thing as balance.

Glorifying Restriction While Fetishizing Food

Restricting food intake is often seen as a form of discipline, regardless of its methods or causes.

When I was fighting, a misguided obsession with eating ‘clean’, led me to cut more and more foods out of my diet. Restriction became a source of pride, just as it had during my eating disorder years earlier. It was a display of how ‘dedicated’ I was. It was part of my identity.

At the same time, food was fetishized. Conversations with training partners often revolved around what we planned to eat after our fights, and outside the gym, we’d exchange food porn in our DMs, knowing each of us understood the struggle of holding out for that post-fight reward.

Good and Bad Foods

Certain foods were labelled ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and some were totally off-limits. Sometimes, this idea was applied to entire food groups.

Having grown up in the time of the Atkins Diet, I’d been conditioned to think that carbs were to be avoided wherever possible. As a result, I’d allow myself carbs in certain forms for breakfast and sometimes lunch, but never for dinner. Having them in three meals a day felt like ‘too much’. More than I deserved.

This was completely counter-productive, especially given the fact that I was training for several hours a day, 6 days a week.

This kind of black-and-white thinking reinforced the shame and guilt I felt around eating, and fed into a constant cycle of restricting and bingeing. But at the time, it felt like a disciplined way to approach my diet.

Former fighter Laura Dal Farra wrote about this in her 2013 blog post, ‘Are You Eating Clean or Do You Have an Eating Disorder?’ “A lot of us become hyper-vigilant in keeping our weight down”, she wrote. “How do you know if you’re a disciplined Muay Thai fighter who eats clean and respects your body or an athlete with an eating disorder who is slowly destroying it?”

Extreme Methods of Weight Cutting Justified by Fighting

Extreme measures to drop weight are often accepted as normal because they’re practised by high-level fighters.

This allowed me to justify my behaviours while I was fighting. I wasn’t a misguided teenage girl on a diet anymore. I was an athlete doing what I’d been taught was necessary for my sport.

Even for fighters without a known history of disordered eating, the repeated process of cutting weight can lead to the development of eating disorders. A number of UFC fighters have opened up about their experiences of this. Felice Herrig posted about her struggles with body dysmorphia and making weight in 2016, and Paige Vanzant has described difficulties she experienced.“I was giving myself an eating disorder to make the weight”, she said.

Former Muay Thai fighter Shelley Lask shared her experience of eating disorders and fighting in a 2017 Facebook post.

“Instead of being proud of myself for following my dreams, I’d started to listen to the chorus of people, from coaches to promoters to boyfriends to strangers to articles on the internet, telling me I could and should make my body smaller and all the ways to do it”, she wrote. “I also became very unwell, both physically and mentally, and very unhappy. I ended up with an eating disorder and went from feeling powerful to feeling trapped and miserable. It was the worst experience of my life”.

After retiring from fighting, Shelley launched Body Positive Fitness, a personal training business with a non-diet approach.

Constantly Trying to Lose Weight

Losing weight, at least for me, is addictive. Once I start, I can easily fall into the habit of pushing myself as far as I can go.

I’m not talking about just cutting weight for fights. Thankfully, this wasn’t something that I had to do too much in my fighting career. While I owned a vinyl sweatsuit and a home sauna, I only used them sporadically.

For me, it wasn’t about short-term losses. It was a constant, looming pressure. I wasn’t just trying to lose weight before a fight (although things certainly ramped up during that time). I was always trying to lose weight, and the short window after a fight was the only respite from that.

In an interview for New York Fighting, fighter-turned-coach Naomi Cookson talked about the stress that weight management for fighting put on her relationship with food and with her body. “For me, the weight cut and making weight was the most stressful thing. I couldn’t even focus on the actual fight part–I just dreaded the weight cut”, she said.

“It was just the whole cycle of it all. You had to diet and cut weight for your fight. Once your fight was over, you had that ‘release’, where you want to just eat everything. It was binge eating and restricting over and over again. That left me with a really unhealthy mindset. I just coped by keeping myself in fight camp all the time”.

“I just became really depressed and hit rock bottom mentally. I realized that I needed to deal with this. Constantly training for fights was not sustainable. It took me a long time to deal with all of it: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and low self-esteem”.

These behaviours aren’t just found in combat sports. A study on disordered eating and compulsive exercising in collegiate athletes found that up to 84% of athletes reported “engaging in maladaptive eating and weight control behaviours, such as binge eating, excessive exercise, strict dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, and the use of weight loss supplements”.

Weighing in for a fight in 2012, my opponent stepping on the scales.

Bingeing After Fights

After a fight, I’d release myself from all my usual restrictions, allowing myself to eat anything and everything.

That’s why there was so much pressure to eat as much as I could during that time — it was the only chance I would get. It was less about wanting the food itself, and more about capitalizing on a rare opportunity. This same thought process applied to my annual trips home, where I’d eat as much as I could to take advantage of all the foods that wouldn’t be available to me when I returned to Thailand.

When I was bingeing with my teammates on celebratory post-fight meals, it didn’t feel like an issue. But this is something I would continue to do alone, and often in secret. During those times, bingeing almost felt like blacking out. In a flash, the food would be gone and I’d suddenly be left feeling uncomfortable, regretful and ashamed.

UFC fighter Paul Felder has spoken about a pattern of bingeing and restricting during his own fighting career.

“I would cut so much weight that then when I was able to eat, I would eat everything”, he said. “I developed an eating disorder over the years, where it was either 100% dieting and cutting weight, being disciplined or 100% being an a-hole…I couldn’t have [‘bad food’] for months and months and months, so when I got it, I wanted to have it all”.

Comments About My Body

My fluctuating weight was always a topic of conversation at the gym. There were constant comments on my body from my trainers, and they kept coming no matter what size I was.

Sometimes, they were related to fighting, but more often than not, they were observations of my perceived attractiveness. I’ve lost count of how many times my trainers told me I would be more beautiful if I lost weight. At times, these comments came as playful teasing, other times, they were voiced in genuine concern or stern disapproval.

When I was heavier, it would be “you’ve gotten so fat! How much do you weigh now? A lot more, for sure”, “you need to train much more” or “what have you been eating?!”

When I was lighter, it would somehow still be turned into an insult. Once, when someone commented that I’d lost weight, a trainer jumped in to say “you should have seen her a few months ago, her arms were so big! I’ve got pictures”. Another time, a different trainer remarked on a considerable amount of weight I’d lost (which came after a difficult break-up and an intensified training regime). “If you lose a few more kilos…”, he began. I expected the second half of his sentence to be ‘you can fight’, as I’d been training so hard. But to my disappointment, it was “you can get a new boyfriend”.

Another trainer who had a reputation for making ‘flirty’ comments (which had been addressed with management) once told me “Emma, you get fatter every day, it’s not beautiful. I don’t want to flirt with you anymore!” This was his idea of a joke.

A different trainer, out of nowhere, told me that I should wear sweatpants to training because it would help me to lose weight. I hadn’t asked. By this time, I was no longer fighting, and I hadn’t expressed a desire to lose weight. He’d just assumed that weight loss was my goal from looking at me and proposed a solution (even if it would only help me to drop water weight).

Often, comments like these have made me anxious about going to the gym, especially If I haven’t been for a while.

I’ve also received these types of comments in fitness gyms, before and after my fighting career. Once, when signing up for a membership, a personal trainer pinched my waist and made a sawing motion with the side of his other hand to show what he thought I needed to lose. Years later, when returning to a different gym after being away for a few weeks, a staff member at the reception desk remarked on how ‘fat’ I’d gotten to her coworker, unaware that I could understand.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t receive criticism at home in the UK, too. On one visit, my mother was having a conversation with a friend in the kitchen while I passed through. When I re-entered the room a few moments later, it became immediately obvious that there’d been a conversation about my weight gain as soon as I’d left. “Your mum just told me that in Thailand people call you fat to your face. Is that true?” the friend asked, flabbergasted. I confirmed, but really wanted to respond by asking “is that any worse than saying it behind your back as soon as you leave the room?” Anti-fat bias is still very present at home, too. It just presents itself in different ways.

Chasing the ‘Fighter’s Body’

When you’re constantly seeing images of fighters at their peak, you can convince yourself that in order to be a legitimate fighter yourself, that’s what you have to look like.

Even when you’re fully aware that those fighters are often stepping on the scales in a state of dehydration, and are unable to maintain the body type we see in the long run, you can still fall into this trap.

Georgia Verry described her experience of body dysmorphia while fighting in a 2021 post, which included obsessing over having visible abs.

“I used fighting as an excuse to maintain a low body weight and ‘fit’ physique. I desperately wanted to have visible abs, but even when my entire spine stuck out of my skin they didn’t show. My period stopped, my hormones shut down and I was constantly sick. My body was crying out for help and I ignored her. I kept telling myself that this was my weight class so I had to be in a permanent calorie deficit while training 20 hours a week and working full time. I was obsessed with touching my stomach to get that there wasn’t any fat appearing. I couldn’t stop”.

Since then, she’s founded a trauma-informed kickboxing program named the Fight Back Project, and is no longer fighting Muay Thai. “It was difficult for me to make peace with gaining weight”, she wrote. Especially at first but even now, I have days/moments where I want to lose the weight again”.

The idea of not ‘looking like a fighter’ has bothered me since I stopped fighting, and it’s something I still find myself feeling self-conscious about (I wrote about this in If I’m Not a Fighter, Who Am I?). In those moments, I remind myself not only that my body is allowed to change, but that I felt that way even when I was fighting. This is because I was always pursuing an unrealistic stereotype instead of just accepting my body.

The Carry-Over Effects After Fighting

Retiring from fighting, or from any sport, comes with changes in lifestyle, identity and body that can be hard to accept.

I haven’t fought for five years now, but my relationship with food remains complicated. Many of the negative behaviours from my fighting years have stayed with me. On top of that, body dissatisfaction contributes an added pressure.

These feelings are not uncommon for former athletes. A 2019 study, Retired Athletes and the Intersection of Food and Body, found that “maladaptive and compensatory behaviours can arise from sustained athletic identity, body grief, lack of education, and contradictory body ideals”. It describes how the changing bodies of retired athletes can present risk factors for disordered eating, and how athletic identity can hinder the acceptance of bodily changes.

Retired Athletes and the Intersection of Food and Body: A Systematic Literature Review Exploring Compensatory Behaviours and Body Change – Georgina L. Buckley et al (2019).

The external pressures that previously surrounded my weight became internal, as I struggled to identify with what I saw in the mirror. This made it even harder to pull myself out of the cycling of restricting and bingeing that I’d been in for so many years.

These days, bingeing is an attempt to self-soothe rather than a planned reward for fighting. Intense emotions are often followed by an urge to binge. As well as my emotional state, it’s also directly linked to my work. The stress, the erratic schedule and the disruption of my training, eating and sleeping routines are all contributors.

Restriction can also be a trigger. Cutting out one type of food can lead to cutting out more and more, and it becomes an obsession that can quickly spiral out of control. Even with a much better understanding of nutrition and a conscious effort to unlearn the self-hating teachings of diet culture, it’s still a struggle after all these years.

Recently, the pandemic exposed my need for control. With gyms closing for extended periods of time, my usual coping mechanism was taken away from me. Living alone and spending even more time by myself than usual meant that my secretive binge-eating behaviours crept back in. When I was consistently training, I could hide its effects and justify it as part of my routine. Now, it’s forced its way into the light. Even with lockdowns long gone, I still find myself falling into the same behaviours.

This struggle has also impacted my confidence and mental well-being, causing me to isolate myself at times. Now, I find myself experiencing increased anxiety around social situations, and even around going to the gym, which is the place I’ve always felt most comfortable. My former identity as a fighter somehow creates even more shame around the issue.

An Ongoing Struggle

I stopped weighing myself altogether for a few years, and until recently, hadn’t done so since my last powerlifting competition. This is partly because after competing in sports with weight classes for so many years, I wanted to finally be free from the scale, living in blissful ignorance of my weight and refusing to let it have any more power over me. But it’s also because I knew what weighing myself would trigger.

A recent annual health check brought the issue home. After a weigh-in and body composition check, I was instructed to lose weight within the next 3 months. This came with a somewhat patronising lecture about what kinds of foods I should be eating and what my plate should look like. But it’s not that I don’t know how to eat, it’s more complicated than that.

As I walked out of the doctor’s office, I could hear the familiar voice of my old eating disorder talking to me, reinforcing how ‘wrong’ my body was, and telling me what drastic measures to take in order to change it. I’m better equipped to deal with this than I once was, but it’s clear to me that it’s not something I can (or should) do alone.

I may always have a complicated relationship with food and body image, and that’s okay. Part of acceptance is letting go of the need for perfection. While I didn’t have the resources or self-compassion to address these issues while I was fighting, I can give those things to myself now. Moving forward, I’m seeking out support to do that.

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