College track athlete crosses the finish line against disordered eating

By Zoe Collins Rath
Medill Reports

Jessica Harris, a winter graduate of DePaul with degrees in biology and environmental science, excelled as captain of the women’s track and field team. But she had a secret from her past that impacted how she captained the team.

“I thought, ‘Okay, this is something I can do and be good at and control,’” she said.

During high school in Whitehall, Michigan, Harris developed an eating disorder called anorexia athletica, an eating disorder where minimal eating goes with excessive exercise. She would eat maybe half a bag of carrots a day and drink a lot of water while running 20 miles and biking for nearly 50 miles.

Harris is 5’7”, and a healthy weight for a woman that tall is 113-138 pounds. But her weighed in high school dropped to 90 pounds. For Harris, who was going through some “abusive times” in her life and her parents’ divorce, eating was something she could control while everything else seemed out of control.

A study by the NIH shows how prevalent eating disorders can be in young U.S. teenagers, especially females. (NIH)

After nearly two years Harris went to therapy and started to develop healthier eating habits. However, it was difficult at DePaul and many other universities because some of her teammates started to develop disordered eating habits.

“In that case it is a cultural norm and coaches ignore it because it’s achieving what they want, with what their athletes look like and sometimes that can be a toxic environment,” Chicago-area nutritionist Kirby Walter said.

Walter has a private practice in addition to working at a federally qualified health center. Her practice emphasizes the need for patients to have good quality food and balanced diets for everyone, especially athletes. It is not good for athletes to eat only protein and vegetables to get an edge on their competition, she said.

“If you are doing those extreme diets you are missing out [on important nutrients] and performance can really suffer,” she said.

Harris said DePaul had a nutritionist but the athletes did not need to report or consult on their eating patterns. To Harris, it felt as though people did not care if athletes had eating disorders or not as long as teams [DePaul] kept winning.

A 2011 study found eating disorders had increased on college campuses from 7.9% to 25% for men, and from 23.4% to 32.6% for women, over a 13-year period. One study, also found that 35% of female and 10% of male college athletes were at risk for anorexia nervosa and 58% of female and 38% of male college athletes were at risk for bulimia nervosa. 

As a captain, Harris was the leader and often times athletes are supposed to lead by example. But being around athletes experiencing disordered eating, Harris felt some pressure to participate in it. Throughout her time at DePaul, she had nearly four teammates struggle with disordered eating in some way.

“There are cases where teams have disordered eating and it’s very common in sports,” Walter said.

After a summer break of full of training and travel, Harris sometimes had teammates who would show up faster and better competitors, but would not eat during the summer. Now that she is out of the environment, Harris does not feel the pressure to look a certain way like she did while running at DePaul. Currently, she is determining whether or to take a research job at Nashville and she is working on self-love.

Harris has discovered how to better deal with her emotions and not have them be related to food and appearances. Now, she is determining the underlying cause of her eating disorder and accepting herself and her body.

“It is hard, but it is something I’m working on,” she said.

Photo at top: (Courtesy of National Institutes of Health)