ACE in India ’18 alum and Duke Women’s Track and Field senior Kate Kutzer is known for her force of will on and off the track. Even her class papers have ripple effects. As part of a class was in during the spring 2020 semester, Kutzer wrote a paper about the relationship between athletes and food during the COVID-19 pandemic to bring awareness to the often overlooked area of struggle.
Kutzer originally enrolled in the class because she wanted to learn more about how food is associated with culture. The class emphasized that the unspoken reasons behind food consumption are very meaningful and that the food people consume can be as diverse and meaningful as their identity.
When charged with writing an essay on food politics, Kutzer chose to focus on athletes’ diets and how they changed over the course of the pandemic – whether that be because of family, money, or a change in appetite, exercise, or diet.
She used the ACE connections she made through her participation in ACE to interview athletes from Duke and Stanford to understand the spectrum of experiences with food, as athletic seasons were canceled, cut short, and athletes were sent home. Kutzer talked with seven Duke student-athletes from Women’s Track, Men’s Track, Women’s Rowing, Women’s Swimming, and Men’s Wrestling teams, as well as three Stanford student-athletes from Women’s Track, and Women’s and Men’s Gymnastics. These sports are among the sports at the highest risk for eating disorders.
On the interview process, Kate commented, saying, “I realized every person I spoke to was so different. Their diet was as diverse as their identity. Some people were more motivated, some people lost all motivation, some people’s sleep schedules changed, some people became more emotionally attached to the food they ate.”
After talking with such a wide range of student-athletes, she made the discovery that the relationship between athletes and food during the pandemic look completely different between the two universities. Stanford athletes remained at home in the fall of 2020, while athletes at Duke were in their dorms and were responsible for acquiring food themselves. In general, due to increased isolation, Duke athletes tended to struggle more with food during the fall.
“Some of the athletes at Duke said they became more occupied with their food – eating more or eating less. Being isolated was the major factor there. Being so motivated to excel in your sport can heighten that issue. I wanted to investigate that,” Kutzer explained.
Besides the added pressure of the pandemic, pure motivation for excelling at a sport can be enough to cause a tense relationship with food. Kate discussed this driving factor with the ten D-I athletes and was particularly interested to see how aware different athletes were of their body fat percentage. Some sports programs require athletes to take regular measurements of the Body Mass Index (BMI), and Kutzer has found that this practice to be both harmful or useful. The use of such measurements can be beneficial when the team fosters a long-term view of how body fat percentage correlates with changes in performance.
Kate emphasized that “This comes with a ton of communication and support from the coaching staff. Some women on the team were preoccupied with it, and others used it to help with performance.” If athletes become preoccupied with such numbers, it can lead to struggles in their relationship with food – for example, decreasing consumption to reach a certain BMI.
If athletes already had a shaky relationship with food due to such measures, the pandemic typically did not help.
No matter what form the food relationship comes in – whether athletes were experiencing disordered eating before or during the isolation of the pandemic, whether exacerbated or diminished by typical athletic measurements like BMI – there is hope.
“Generally, the best way to solve something like this is to increase support systems with friends,” Kutzer stated. Pre-pandemic, athletes at Duke appreciated programs like Training Table, which provided “high performance” buffet dinners Monday through Thursday, giving athletes a chance to both fuel and foster community. Training Table has been discontinued during the pandemic, and meals are often eaten in isolation.
Kutzer explained, “Food is such a community thing, and if you take away the community as in the forced isolation due to COVID-19, you take the joy out of food and it can lend itself to unhealthy eating disorders.”
Though she concluded that mental health food struggles had increased within athletic teams during the pandemic at Duke, Kutzer noted that coaches and other athletic staff could play a role in mitigating these negative impacts. Intentional check-ins from coaches concerned about the holistic well-being of their athletes off the field could help them cope with the stress the changes of the pandemic bring.
At the end of the endeavor, Kutzer had learned a lot and reconnected with her ACE friends.
“It was such a great experience catching up with people again and was so cool to see how everyone was doing.”
Through these deep relationships forged via ACE, she was able to bring awareness to a common area of struggle with her fellow student-athletes. We should all be a little more like Kate.