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Athletes Are Finally Talking About Stress-Eating in Sports

And if UFC fighter Jorge Masvidal’s anxiety-driven binge-eating can teach us anything, it’s time the rest of us did too

It was just another balmy Miami night when Jorge Masvidal noticed his phone buzzing, again and again, practically jumping out of his pocket. The messages, at least a dozen of them, all asked the same question: How did he feel about his fight being at the risk of cancellation?

Masvidal stared at the screen, confused and antsy. Was this a prank? It was just eight more days until his match at Madison Square Garden with the feisty welterweight Nate Diaza hyped battle for the UFC’s “Baddest Mother-Fucker” belt. They had literally invented the belt for Masvidal and Diaz: two tigers, raised on the street, who clearly thirsted for the pure energy of beating another man with their fists. 

Now, as he scrolled through Twitter, the worst-case scenario became clear: Diaz had gotten tagged with an illicit substance in his urine test. Masvidal didn’t believe that Diaz, a lifelong noisy critic of dopers, had taken anything on purpose. He just knew that the biggest night of his life was about to be derailed.

“A little bit of anxiety came. Not anxiety in the sense I thought Nate was a cheater, because I never thought he was a cheater. Just the uncertainty, like, They might pull my fight because of some lab screw-up? Because of some weird-ass bullshit?” Masvidal later told ESPN. “I don’t want to diss on USADA, either, because I think they’ve cleaned up a lot of the sport, but it’s not 100 percent right yet.”

Masvidal calls it a “little bit” of anxiety, but it was enough for him to black out and forget about the rules of his pre-fight diet. As he digested the bad news on his phone, his fingers diverted him to the UberEats app. He tapped in an order for a giant’s portion of food: two pizzas, covered in jalapeños and pineapple chunks, along with a side of fries and a large soda. As soon as it arrived, he began chowing down. Less than an hour later, it was all gone. 

“My dad [Jorge Sr.] lives with me. He’s a spy for the coaching staff, so he was able to get a hold of the cavalry and inform them of what’s going on. I had access to credit cards at the moment, and they quickly came over and removed UberEats from the phone, and the credit cards were taken from me. But the damage had been done already,” Masvidal said. “When I get anxiety and depression and things like that, I take to eating.”

Turns out, the panic was all for naught. USADA found that Diaz had inadvertently taken a tainted supplement, and the fight went down as planned on November 2nd, with Masvidal taking the BMF title after damn near tearing Diaz’s eyebrow off his face. 

But the anxiety of the lead-up provided an intimate view into the head of a ferocious competitor, and proved again that seemingly superhuman athletes struggle with the same basic instincts that the rest of us face, too.

It goes beyond the kind of “emotional eating” that most people experience; wanting to curl up in a big bowl of ice cream after a hard day is a popular and accepted cultural trope, after all, and it’s clear Masvidal is a guy who takes comfort and joy in eating all the time. The real trouble starts when stress creates a compulsion to eat the pain away. It’s a health phenomenon that’s now labeled as “binge-eating disorder,” and is one of the newest eating disorders to be recognized by psychologists. Despite its newness in textbooks, binge-eating is a behavior that a lot of people, especially athletes, are familiar with. Still, few people want to admit they have a problem. 

What qualifies as problematic binge-eating, opposed to just a carelessly indulgent meal? Portion size is the obvious red flag: Most binge-eating episodes involve thousands of calories, taken in a single setting beyond the point of rational fullness. There’s usually a sense of shame involved here, too, with people trying to conceal their feasting by hiding food or trash. The lack of control and guilt defines the problem at its core. 

I’m more or less nothing like Masvidal: I didn’t grow up on the streets of Miami, I’m not Cuban-American, I don’t fight for a living and my nickname is decidedly not “Gamebred.” But I do understand his trigger-like decision to splurge on pizza while confused and anxious. I know the feeling of trying to take the decision out of my hands, by deleting apps or erasing my credit card info from my internet browser, in the hopes the inconvenience will stop me from putting in a 1:30 a.m. Wendy’s order. I know the Twilight Zone zen that comes when you’re stuffing a seventh slice of carbs and fat into your maw, eating from instinct like a cow chews its cud. 

And, like with Masvidal, I know the “morning-after” feeling: the physical and emotional aftermath of behaving like shit, and the bounce-back willpower to eat nothing (because you ate too much) and over-exercise (because you ate too much). In hopes of nipping the habit before it starts to spiral in my 30s, I’ve been working with a therapist in L.A., Vida Nikzad, to confront day-to-day stress and the existential panics that lead me to overeat in epic fashion, about once or twice a month. Like substance abuse, binge-eating is shaped most often by personal cycles, Nizkad recently told me. 

Why Guys Like Me Can’t Stop Eating Their Feelings

“Overconsumption is a classic way that people who have trouble breaking cyclical behaviors cope. So really, the mechanism that tells you to order food late at night and indulge past your bedtime is the same mechanism that tells an MMA fighter that he needs pizza to take the edge off panic,” she says. “When I talk to my patients, it becomes clear that overconsumption and relapses are linked to a triggering feeling or incident. It’s not far off from substance abuse, which we also see in people who are in high-stress, extremely competitive fields.”

Athletes have it harder because rigid dieting and high-performance exercise creates a natural craving for carbs and fat to fill up the body and prevent weight loss; on the flip side, those who need to “bulk up” for their job, whether it’s boxing or playing football, can also develop an addictive relationship with food. The younger you start to associate emotional stressors and the therapeutic effect of food, the more ingrained binge-eating habits can become, according to research from the National Eating Disorder Association. More than a quarter of collegiate athletes exhibit symptoms of an eating disorder, the organization argues, with a disproportionate impact on female athletes in particular. 

“Unfortunately that culture is condoned by my sport. … When you get to the point where you’re so starved, as soon as you can eat again you can’t stop — you turn into the Cookie Monster, and it’s this really scary moment where [you] can’t stop,” a former female varsity athlete told the Stanford Daily

Masvidal may or may not have a treatable issue with binge-eating, but his episode makes it clear that even the most disciplined (and tough) people on Earth succumb to very human instincts for self-preservation. 

As for what he or I can do when the wrong text or a bad night sends us spiraling toward the comfort of pigging out, the advice from Harvard Medical School and other experts is obvious: Meditation and the repeated affirmation of willpower should help. The same for diverting to exercise to raise cortisol levels and finding ways to be social and get out of the house (remember, binge-eating almost always happens alone). As my own doctor tells me, it’s a slow-and-steady process to retrain your brain, with plenty of room to slip up — which means that sometimes, when I relapse, I have to find ways to quell the guilt rather than let it fuel more binging in the future. 

But given that most eating disorders are still hardly discussed in the American mainstream, experts say the biggest tool may just be talking about the condition more. It’s fitting, not ironic, that the conversation was most recently sparked by a cocky Cuban-American now deemed the UFC’s “Baddest MF.” He might still be in the shape of his life, but Masvidal’s admitted mistake shows how easily we can succumb to literal comfort food when the shit hits the fan.