Nov 28, 2023
Fostering Effective Nutrition, Body Image, and Eating Disorder-Related Communication Strategies for Strength and Conditioning Coaches

Jessica Griffith, RD, CEDS

Written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association Registered Dietitian (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the significant impact that strength and conditioning coaches can have on an athlete’s well-being, including their relationship with food and body image. It is crucial for coaches to lead a supportive and empowering environment that promotes healthy eating behaviors and prevents any disordered eating habits. This article aims to look at the use of effective eating recovery language to promote strategies and advice which strength and conditioning coaches can utilize in their everyday practice to foster a positive and safe environment for athletes.

Understanding Eating Recovery Language

Eating recovery language refers to the choice of words and the way coaches communicate with athletes about food and eating habits.

It recognizes the sensitivity and potential triggers that exist for individuals struggling with disordered eating patterns. Coaches have a responsibility to avoid language that reinforces negative body image, unhealthy eating behaviors, or perpetuates any form of disordered eating. Below are tips and examples on how to prevent and/or navigate potential disordered-eating situations.

1 – Establishing Trust and Rapport

When an athlete shows up to you, assume they have already had some experience related to food or body image that was not ideal. Fostering an open and trusting relationship with athletes is fundamental to effective communication. Create an environment where athletes feel comfortable discussing their fears, concerns, and goals regarding food and body image. This requires coaches to be approachable, empathetic, non-judgmental, and well-informed about disordered eating and eating disorders.

2 – Knowing the Difference – Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders

Disordered eating differs from eating disorders. Eating disorders are serious, diagnosable mental health disorders recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Disordered eating is a term to describe less severe or more infrequent behaviors where an individual does not meet the criteria for the diagnosis of an eating disorder. Despite their differences, signs and symptoms for an eating disorder and disordered eating can be similar. Due to the complexity of disordered eating, coaches should invest time in educating themselves about various disordered eating behaviors, symptoms, their causes, and appropriate recovery strategies. This knowledge equips coaches with a better understanding of individual struggles, enabling them to offer informed guidance and support that is unique to the situation at hand. Below are behaviors and comments that would be of concern for any athlete that may be engaging in some form of disordered eating.

Concerning Food/Eating Behaviors

  • Avoiding eating around others
  • Avoiding food groups
  • Spending excessive amount of money on food
  • Persistently restricting food intake
  • Eating very little or nothing at all (i.e.,”fasting” throughout the day)
  • Skipping meals and/or denying hunger
  • Worried about food quality, ingredients and/or excessive food label reading, food research
  • Overly critical of others food choices and/or diets

Concerning Behaviors/Actions

  • Withdrawal from friends/activities
  • Feeling guilty and/or shameful about eating afterwards
  • Using the bathroom frequently after meals
  • Counting calories, steps, macros
  • Excessive food wrappers in the trashcan or hidden in odd places like their backpack, locker in locker room
  • Frequent body checking in the mirror
  • Fear of eating in public places and/or anxiety if there are “no food options” for them in social settings
  • Bringing their own food to social settings


  • “I can’t eat that, it’s not healthy. I’ll see you guys later; I’ll go get something different to eat.”
  • “I’m not going to the team dinner after lift. If I eat all those carbs, I’m going to get fat.”
  • “I feel so much better, I just needed to get it out of me.”
  • “I think losing a few pounds would improve my performance.”
  • “I feel so sluggish, I keep eating a ton at night.”
  • “I want to keep up the good work and stay looking extra lean.”
  • “I’m only eating foods with 5 ingredients or less.”
  • “I’m trying to eat clean, organic foods only, nothing super processed.”
  • “Everything at the fueling station is so bad to eat, I don’t know why my teammates drink the chocolate milk. I always bring my own organic, non-processed bars.”

3 – Promoting Positive Body Image

Encouraging athletes to develop a positive body image is essential. Coaches should focus on praising and celebrating athletes’ achievements, abilities, and character traits rather than solely emphasizing physical appearance. This less traditional approach helps to cultivate a healthy mindset and encourages athletes to value themselves beyond their physical attributes.

Harmful to athlete’s body image

  • Making comments about body weight/composition.
  • Complimenting an athlete’s appearance.
  • Making comments that an athlete’s weight/body composition is the main factor linked to their performance or athletic ability.
  • Making comments that an athlete’s eating habits are the only factors linked to their weight/body composition.

Promotes positive body image

  • Emphasis on non-scale victories, such as improved energy levels, technique/skills, mood, etc.
  • Giving compliments unrelated to appearance.
  • “Your performance on the field/court/etc. isn’t where it has been – have you considered talking to Sports Nutrition about fueling strategies?”
  • “Yes, nutrition plays a role in weight/body composition/performance, and so does sleep, stress, training load, etc. – Sports nutrition can work with you and come up with a nutrition game plan.”

4 – Avoiding Language That Reinforces Negative Associations

Coaches must be mindful of the language they use when discussing food, dieting, and body weight. Avoid making derogatory comments about certain foods, restrictive dieting, or using body-shaming language. Instead, emphasize the importance of balanced nutrition, the pleasure of eating, and the well-being that comes from properly nourishing the body.

Harmful to athlete’s relationship with food

  • Emphasis on choosing/eating “clean” or “healthy” foods.
  • Emphasis on not choosing “bad” or “unhealthy” foods, demonizing certain foods or food groups.
  • Emphasis on dieting and trying multiple diets or different eating patterns (e.g., keto or intermittent fasting).
  • Shaming food choices – “Are you really going to choose THAT (food, drink, snack, etc.)”.

Utilizing eating recovery language to support positive relationships with food

  • Emphasis on choosing/eating nutrient dense meals/snacks OR optimal foods.
  • All foods fit approach – encouraging there is a time and place for all foods. If an athlete needs assistance, refer to a sports dietitian in discussing an individualized nutrition game plan.
  • Sports nutrition can help an athlete find appropriate fueling strategies or diet patterns to meet their needs.
  • Encourage athletes to choose foods that support both training and recovery.

5 – Encouraging Open Dialogue

Create an environment of open dialogue and encourage athletes to share their concerns about their relationship with food and body image. Provide a safe space where athletes can seek guidance and express themselves without fear of judgment or punishment. Listening actively and compassionately is crucial to building trust and helping athletes on their nutrition and/or recovery journey. If there are concerns about nutrition, eating behaviors and body image that may be out of your scope of practice, refer to a registered dietitian.


  • Listen to your athlete non-judgmentally and give them space to talk about how they are feeling.
  • Be compassionate and caring. Express your support and/or concerns. Encourage athletes to touch base with sports nutrition and/or sports psychology.
  • Speak up and express your concerns with the athlete, sports nutrition and/or sports psychology.


  • Minimize their thoughts/feelings when they are sharing about their food and/or body image concerns.
  • Get frustrated or annoyed by the athlete’s eating habits or try to force them to eat or not eat.
  • Ignoring the conversation, ignoring comments you may be hearing, and/or ignoring the concerning disordered eating behaviors you may be observing.

6 – Collaborating with Professionals

If you see or hear any of these things, the number one thing to do is communicate. Coaches should establish partnerships with sports dietitians, sports psychologists, and healthcare professionals who specialize in healthy eating and/or eating disorders (healthcare professionals who specialize in disordered eating and eating disorders will have the credential Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS)). This collaborative effort ensures that athletes receive comprehensive support tailored to their individual needs, further enhancing their recovery process.


Effectively utilizing eating recovery language is essential for coaches, especially strength and conditioning coaches, aiming to create a supportive and empowering environment for athletes. By establishing trust, educating themselves on eating disorders vs. disordered eating, promoting positive body image, using neutral language, encouraging dialogue, and collaborating with professionals, coaches can positively contribute to athletes’ well-being, thereby helping to foster a healthy relationship with food and facilitate any potential disordered eating- / eating disorder-related recovery. Ultimately, investing in these communication strategies will not only enhance athletic performance but also cultivate a culture of empathy, inclusivity, and holistic health.


Coaches and Trainers | National Eating Disorders Association

Sport Psychology and Sports Nutrition Services – Mind Body Endurance

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A | P.O. Box 128 | Sparta, MI 49345
[email protected] | 616.520.2137