Kat Merchant: How rugby and lifting saved me from an eating disorder
Now this isn’t an easy one for me to write. I struggled with body image even as a child. At primary school I remember doing a lesson where we weighed ourselves and did some strength tests. I was stronger and heavier than the boys.
I wish I could tell my nine year old self that years later I’d find this awesome body, because at the time I was embarrassed and thought I must be fat.
For clarity I was doing gymnastics and lots of other sports so had a muscular physique but for me weight meant fat.
I went home and started poking my ‘belly’ in the mirror and cried. This makes me so sad now to think about that one incident shaping how I’d view myself.
Fast forward to being a teenager and I started playing rugby. I wanted to be good at it so I trained everyday and ate how I thought an athlete should. I remember one day eating a plate of spaghetti and vinegar because I’d heard that meat was fattening and so were sauces.
When I was 18 I got selected into an England squad of 44. I was 5’8 and 58kg. We got access to a nutritionist and I got my skin folds measured for ‘fat testing’ as we called it and the nutritionist sat me down and hit me with some really valuable advice.
She told me that my fat percentage was similar to an elite endurance runner and if I didn’t put on some weight my periods would stop and I’d probably pick up injuries in rugby. This hit home. She also got me to track my calories for a week. Turns out that despite training 12 hours a week I was in a calorie deficit, eating just 1,000 calories a day.
I started to up my calories but in truth always struggled to get my head around it but I wanted to be good at rugby and didn’t want my periods to stop.
As part of my personal training course I did alongside being at university there was a section on eating disorders and a tick box of symptoms. My partner at the time pointed out that I ticked a lot of the boxes and they were right when I looked at it. I was portraying things which I didn’t even realise were ‘symptoms’.
I’d subconsciously stop eating as soon as anyone else did even if I had a full plate of food left. I really struggled at buffets, which was a real issue being in camp as most the food was served in that way.
I’d have to circle around a few times and try not to get overwhelmed- sometimes I’d come back with nothing and have to calm myself down then try again. I always had a voice in my head questioning everything I ate and felt guilty about most food choices. I’d never have fast food such as a KFC or various other foods that I associated with being unhealthy.
I had a nine year career with England and focused on being strong and fit for the sport. Concentrating on fuelling myself and optimising my performance rather than what my body looked like helped me overcome nutrition barriers and my fighting weight was 70kg.
When I retired from rugby it was horrific. I was 28, it was a medical retirement on the grounds of concussion and I struggled with the aftermath- a mix of post concussion syndrome, anxiety and lack of self identity. I then went through a devastating break up that floored me.
Lockdown hit as all this was going on and I found myself living alone- I lost seven kilograms by overtraining and being overly restrictive with my food. I looked ripped but was not happy or healthy.
I met my current partner Mike during this time and he got me into weight lifting. I fell in love with it. I loved focusing again on what my body could do rather than how it looked. I realised that by eating more of the right food I had better energy and could lift more.
I’m now in my best place both physically and mentally- I have a good relationship with food and exercise which allows me to enjoy my social life.
So if anyone does struggle with body image my advice would be to try a sport and focus on the amazing things your body can do! Rugby and weight lifting certainly saved me!
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