Female college athletes say pressure to cut body fat is toxic

Christine Williford, who ran track and field at Texas Christian University and Arizona State, in Frisco, Texas on May 3, 2022. (Photo: NYTimes)
Audra Koopman wanted to be leaner and more powerful.

She also wanted to eat. But, she said, she could sense what her track and field coaches at Penn State wanted: for her to have less body fat.اضافة اعلان

Coaches never told her to achieve a specific body fat percentage, Koopman said, but a lowered score on periodic body composition tests generally earned a pat on the back.

“It’s interesting how a lot of us have kind of been brainwashed into thinking that that is something that’s good for you and it is good for you to lose your period and it is good for you to have that feeling of hunger in your stomach,” said Koopman, who competed in long jump and short sprints from 2017-21.

But as she ate less and her body fat dropped, she was not running any faster. It made her wonder why the scores mattered so much.

Across the US, many collegiate athletic departments are asking or requiring student-athletes to measure their body composition, producing data that can help schools gauge whether the athletes are optimally training, resting, and eating.

But The New York Times spoke with nearly 20 female current and former athletes across the Power 5 conferences, many of whom have found body composition tests to be invasive, inconsequential to their performance, and triggering for those who had eating disorders or were predisposed to them. The tests are just one aspect of a culture in women’s college sports in which weight, body image, and body composition are often discussed in harmful ways — or not discussed at all, even though they are important factors in the athletes’ physical and mental health.

Body composition data often overemphasize the correlation between body fat percentage and athletic performance, while understating other key factors such as sleep and hydration, said Dr Paula Quatromoni, an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Boston University and an expert on sports nutrition and eating disorders.

Stef Strack, the founder of Voice in Sport, a digital platform for girls and women in sports that offers mental health resources and mentorship, said she had heard mixed feedback about the use of the tests.

“A lot of the struggles come in when the culture and the environment isn’t great,” Strack said. “And when you add data prioritized over how athletes feel, that’s when you get to some of these broader systemic issues that women are facing regarding body image, confidence, and comparison.”

What the science says
There are several ways to assess body composition. At Penn State, Koopman was measured with a Bod Pod, a human-size, egg-shaped capsule. She would sit on a bench inside it for a few minutes while the machine calculated her body fat, muscle, and bone density and returned a score. Some schools employ a DEXA Scan, which uses a hovering arm to make measurements as athletes lie on a table.

After The Oregonian reported on concerns from athletes at the University of Oregon about how DEXA Scans were being used in 2021, the school said teams could no longer require athletes to be tested for body fat percentage or share the results with coaches.

Quatromoni said schools should not use body composition tests to measure body fat.

“This practice is steeped in weight stigma, stereotypes, and misinformation,” Quatromoni wrote in an email. “It is not based on sports science, and rarely is the practice managed or monitored closely by qualified health professionals to have any positive outcome. Instead, it can have devastating consequences for the athlete and will sabotage the very goals that athletes and coaches pursue.”

Most of the female current and former athletes interviewed by the New York Times did not know whether their coaches received the results of the tests, however, they suspected that they did.

Many felt awkward discussing their weight with male coaches, whose comments, the women said, ranged from questions about their sexual activity to urges to get rid of their “muffin top,” referring to belly fat. And although none said the tests were mandatory, many felt it would be frowned upon if they asked to opt-out.

Koopman discussed her tests only with a school nutritionist. Somehow, she said, her coaches always seemed to know her results.

Kristina Petersen, Penn State’s associate athletics director of strategic communications, said in an email that the school’s “general practice” was not to share the test results with coaches.

“Like other institutions, Penn State employs a number of resources — including the ‘Bod Pod’ — to help our student-athletes understand and track body composition, avoid injury, overcome setbacks, and enhance overall athletic performance,” Petersen said.

In May 2019, the University of Kansas announced a collaboration with the University of Kansas Health System that allowed staff members to report to medical professionals instead of physicians employed by the athletic department, with the goal of minimizing potential conflicts of interest between coaches and the sports medicine staff.

Body composition tests are not mandatory at the university unless a student-athlete has a previously identified medical condition that requires monitoring, a Kansas spokesperson said.

Dan Beckler, a former senior associate athletic director at Kansas, said sports dietitians would give the athletes recommendations based on the results but would not share information with coaches without the students’ consent.

Koopman, the former Penn State athlete, said the information should be shared only in certain situations. Koopman is now helping to coach track at one of the high schools she grew up near in Colorado and plans to attend graduate school.

The body composition tests can be beneficial, she said, depending on how they are used and how the information is shared.

“If somebody is really having issues with something, maybe that’s when you bring in the body scan,” she said. “But if not, I feel like I would have been much better off not knowing about it at all.”

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