Some of the personality traits — endurance, pain tolerance, persistence — that helped Minnesota Nordic ski champion Jessie Diggins capture gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang winter Olympics were the very same characteristics that fueled the eating disorder that once threatened to sideline her athletic career.
This realization, made while Diggins was undergoing outpatient treatment for an eating disorder that developed when she was in her late teens, felt significant, like a 2-ton weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
“For a long time, I felt guilty for doing this to myself, for hurting my family,” Diggins said.
But then, while taking part in group therapy sessions at The Emily Program, a comprehensive eating disorder treatment center headquartered in St. Paul, Diggins learned that she was likely genetically “primed” to have an eating disorder, that the very personality traits that made her an Olympian also put her at greater risk for developing a potentially life-threatening relationship with food.
“I’m a very type-A, self-described perfectionist,” Diggins said. “I’ve always wanted to be perfect. Growing up I wanted to have perfect grades and be really good at sports and play violin without making mistakes. In every area of my life I wanted to give 100 percent. It’s what makes me good at cross-country skiing, but it’s also what puts me at risk.”
Elite athletes like Diggins, who possess a unique combination of physical prowess and deep emotional drive, develop eating disorders at higher rates than the general public, said Jillian Croll Lampert, Emily Program chief strategy officer.
Emily Program therapists work to help clients learn more about the brain science behind eating disorders, Lampert explained. Understanding that anorexia, bulimia or binge eating are forms of mental illness, just like depression, anxiety or addiction, helps people gain greater understanding of themselves and opens a window to recovery.
“It is not the person with the eating disorder’s fault,” Lampert said. “It’s not the family’s fault. For a long time families felt like they got blamed for their child’s eating disorder. Genetic information helps to turn the tide.”
Success requires focus
Athletes often feel like they have an extra hurdle to cross when struggling with an eating disorder. Because sports require an intense focus on their body’s form and function, many athletes, especially those competing at high levels or in sports like gymnastics or wrestling that encourage a focus on weight, feel a need to control everything they take in. When an athlete’s body is on display, in competition or working closely with a coach, they may push themselves past their limits with a goal of attaining an unobtainable standard of perfection, Lampert said. This quest can have the unintended consequence of harming their athletic performance.
“I’ve had many clients over the years who said, ‘If I could just weigh less I could run faster, if I could be leaner I could go faster, be more aerodynamic,’” Lampert said. “The piece they fail to realize is that when people aren’t well nourished they lose muscle mass. They can’t jump as high, run as fast, wrestle as hard.”
That was the case for Rasa Troup, a former Olympic distance runner who now works as a registered dietician specializing in nutrition for health, performance, exercise, disordered eating and eating disorders.
For many years, Troup, who works as a nutritionist for the Minnesota Vikings, struggled with an eating disorder that developed when she was 13 and training with the national team in her native country of Lithuania.
“I’d always been an athlete who was stronger and taller and heavier set than many of the other distance runners,” she said. Because she felt that distance runners had to be super-lean, Troup focused on cutting calories. “I thought I needed to get better at everything I did, including nutrition. That turned into the pathology of the eating disorder. At first at first it was a few things I was improving and then all the sudden I was cutting out all sorts of food groups.”
Troup’s severely limited diet eventually had a negative impact on her running career. “My performance suffered greatly from my struggling with the eating disorder,” she said. Eventually, when she was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Troup sought treatment for her eating disorder.
“I was very vocal about my eating disorder and didn’t hide it from the coaches,” she said. “It helped me to get help.”
When working with an athlete in recovery, Lampert said she tries to emphasize the positive side of the traits that once fueled their eating disorder.
“Take a trait like persistence, that feeling that you won’t give up no matter what, that you will strive to achieve and get what you want,” Lampert said. That can be a laudable trait in an athlete, as long as he or she understands the importance turning that persistent energy toward performance and away from food.
“You have to hang on for a long time to be successful at sport at an elite level,” Lampert explained. “You can’t do that if you’re starving yourself. Food is fuel.”
‘I couldn’t stop’
A competitive skier through high school, Diggins avoided disordered eating until she was 18 and she began to see her body changing.
“I hit that second puberty that happens with young women where you get bigger hips and put on a little more body fat,” she said. She now understands that growth spurt happens to many young women, but at the time, when Diggins was focused on launching a competitive cross-country ski career, the shifting numbers on the scale felt alarming.
“It was scary for me when my body was changing,” she said. “I was watching the World Cup at the time and I had this huge misconception that the most successful skiers had absolutely no body fat.”
Because she wanted to be just like her ski heroes, Diggins began working to shed pounds.
“It started out as overexercising and restricting my food, then it morphed,” she said. “By the time I graduated high school, I threw up for the first time.” When friends, family and teammates expressed concern, Diggins deflected.
“I was in denial,” she said. “I’d tell myself and other people, ‘I’m fine. I’m just racing a lot. I’m trying to have a lean, athletic body type.’”
When she couldn’t stop making herself throw up, she knew she was in trouble: “I was like, ‘That’s bulimia,’” she recalled. “ I had to face it. I knew it wasn’t good for me. I knew this thing could kill me. All of my electrolyte balances were out of whack. It was putting so much stress on my heart, but I couldn’t stop.”
It was a busy, stressful time in Diggins’ life. “I was feeling that a lot of aspects of my life were out of my control,” she said. Though she was planning to defer while she pursued her ski dreams, Diggins was preoccupied by applying to colleges.
“I needed to have a great back-up plan,” she said. “Ski racing is out of your control in so many ways. Someone could crash into you and you could have an accident that could end your career. Food was one thing that was directly under my control. I could control what I ate and get super lean.”
This approach to food quickly took over Diggins’ life. She was hungry, tired, struggling to keep up.
“I clung to that one measurable, tangible thing, to that goal of getting lean,” Diggins said, “not realizing that the amount of impact your body fat has on your racing is pretty much negligible compared to your fitness level, your mental state, your drive and your tactics.” She was now throwing up, by her own account, “several times a day.”
By this point, Diggins’ bulimia was not just hurting her athletic performance, it was also hurting her personal life.
“What pushed me over the edge was when I realized what I was doing to my family,” Diggins said, slowly. “I told myself, ‘You have an eating disorder. It is so toxic to everyone around you. It is harmful not just to yourself but also to everyone else in your life.’”
Diggins is close to her family and has always had a good relationship with her parents. “I was making my mom cry,” she said. “That is not OK. She was setting alarms so she could check on me to make sure my heart did not stop in my sleep.”
Desperate to get their daughter help, Diggins’ parents searched for eating disorder treatment programs. They found an intensive day program at The Emily Program in St. Paul, just 40 minutes away from their home in Afton.
“I was seeing a therapist at the time but it wasn’t working out for me,” Diggins said. “My parents sat me down and said, ‘You aren’t getting better. We are really scared you are going to die.’”
Because Diggins was 18 and a legal adult, she needed to make the decision to admit herself for treatment. Her parents handed her the phone, and Diggins made the call. Since then hasn’t looked back.
“I owed it to my parents, not just to myself, to try to get better,” she said.
The fight of her life
Even though Diggins had committed to getting better — for her own health, for the sake of her family for her athletic career — facing down her eating disorder was much harder than she ever imagined it could be.
“Recovery was really tough,” Diggins said. “It was the toughest thing in my life, including the Olympics.”
During her treatment, which focused on daily group therapy combined with individual sessions with a therapist, Diggins dove deep, working to understand the origins of her eating disorder and developing strategies to keep it at bay.
“In high school I was a goody two shoes,” Diggins said. “I tried really hard, got great grades, never drank, never tried any drugs. I was trying to be the perfect kid. I was very hard on myself, and I learned I had to cut that out.”
The group therapy sessions felt particularly helpful for Diggins: It tapped into her natural athletic tendencies. “It was really awesome for me,” she explained. “I felt like, ‘This is my team. We are all working toward the same goals.’ Having that group supporting me and leaning on me for my support was really important to my recovery.”
Diggins said that during treatment she learned to put her bulimia in its place, to see it as an addiction that she had to overcome. “It is hard to quit,” she said. “You become so dependent on it. You lose all control in life. You feel like you need it to survive. It is really scary. It sucked me in very quickly.”
Though she knows that other forms of addiction are just as deadly and difficult to overcome, Diggins feels that there is something particularly tricky about breaking an addiction to an eating disorder.
Though she knows that sobriety is much tougher than that, there were times during her treatment and recovery that Diggins said she thought, “People with substance addiction can just quit and never drink again, but you can’t quit food. You have to eat to survive. No one tells an alcoholic to just find a healthy approach to drinking.”
The treatment program taught Diggins to reframe the way she thought about food, to trust her judgment and give herself an opportunity to make mistakes. Over time Diggins learned that relaxing her exacting standards wouldn’t cost her competitive edge: When she learned to really love herself, despite her flaws, she became stronger, more confident. And when she combined perspective with a healthy approach to nutrition, Diggins’ race times only got better.
“I never met a human who loves their body every single day,” Diggins said. “That’s not realistic. Being healthy and having a positive, healthy body image doesn’t mean I’m going to love all of me every day. It means I’m going to choose to love myself as I am and have compassion for the parts of me that I am struggling with that day.”
Recovery that lasts
Almost a decade since she first sought treatment for her eating disorder, Diggins can now confidently say that she has recovered. When she’s had the opportunity, she’s been open about her struggles in the media, working to break down stereotypes about mental illness and sports. She wants young athletes to know that eating disorders are common and can be career-enders. She hopes that if she speaks up about her own struggles and recovery, others will reach out for help.
This fall, Diggins announced that she has signed on as a spokesperson for The Emily Program and the Emily Program Foundation. She’ll be speaking up about eating disorders and eating disorder treatment in person and on social media. On Nov. 3, she’ll share her personal story of recovery as keynote speaker at The Emily Program’s 25th anniversary celebration. The event runs from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the program’s St. Louis Park location, 5354 Parkdale Drive, Minneapolis. Diggins’ keynote is scheduled for 2:30.
Diggins said she feels a responsibility to give back to the program that helped her out when she was at the lowest point in her life. She chalks much of the athletic success that came her way in the last few years to the time she spent focusing on her recovery.
“There’s no way I could’ve walked away from the Olympics with a medal if I wasn’t recovered, no possible way,” she said. “The Olympics are really stressful. You are under a lot of scrutiny. You need to have a lot of confidence in yourself and your body and not let food or body image distract you from your racing.”
Though she can confidently say that she’s put her eating disorder in the past, Diggins said there are still days when it threatens to re-emerge, and being open about her struggle, while empowering, can also mean that others will scrutinize her behavior.
“I worry about people looking at me differently,” she said. “I didn’t want people to think, ‘Is she using symptoms?’ if I just need to go to the bathroom and pee after a meal.”
The intense observation was especially difficult in the buildup to the Olympics, Diggins said: “I was losing weight from stress, not on purpose.” She talked to friends and family members and reassured them that everything was OK. “You don’t want people to start whispering behind your back,” she said.
Nearly as important as the support of family and friends is the support of fans, Diggins said. Part of what motivates her to be open about her eating disorder is the hope that young athletes will find inspiration and hope in her story.
“This struggle was very hard for me,” Diggins said. “It made me feel awesome to be able to overcome my eating disorder and succeed as an athlete.” When she was young, Diggins kept an eye on older athletes, trying to emulate their every move: “When they were open about something that was hard for them, I loved them even more. I hope that’s how they’ll feel about me.”