Nutritional Pitfalls on the Athlete’s Journey
Chef Stephanie Michalak, Turner Farm Culinary Manager
The reason I started martial arts at four years old was because I wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. However, once I realized that option was biologically impossible, I settled on becoming a Power Ranger. For a four-year-old, this seems entirely logical, but it was certainly not the reason I continued the sport until I left home for college. The karate studio became like a second home where I learned discipline, responsibility, and respect for myself and others. Over the years, I competed individually and on demonstration teams (lovingly called demo teams) regionally and nationally.
I certainly dedicated a lot of time and effort into martial arts, but as I transitioned to high school I found passions for volleyball and ultimate frisbee. Honestly, I wasn’t great at volleyball, but what I lacked in natural talent (I was 5’2” in high school and my vertical ups are unimpressive), I made up in effort and energy—getting the nickname “Scrappy” from my coach and being voted captain of the JV team in my sophomore year.
Luckily, I did find I had a knack for ultimate frisbee… and yes, it’s a lot more than throwing a disc across a quad between classes. I was on the first all-girls high school frisbee team in Connecticut, so we routinely played co-ed teams. Our training focused a lot on technique, communication, and the ability to use our game-smarts. I loved the game, the comradery, and the wider ultimate frisbee community.
But I’m not writing just to tell you about my outdated athletic record. I want to talk about the lack of nutritional understanding in tandem with a hyper-competitive neurosis that almost killed me by the time I was 16.
Essentially, I spiraled from a healthy, driven athlete to an obsessive, malnourished cluster. While I was in my spring semester of my sophomore year in high school, I was striving to be faster, stronger, and more fit—spending mornings running roughly five to seven miles before classes, sometimes squeezing in a workout midday, and then typically a two-hour afternoon team practice.
Short-term gains from running and being so obsessive allowed me headspace, faster times, and honestly, I felt physically on top of the world. Earlier in the year, I had gone vegetarian. This was primarily because I found the American food system a disaster, but secondarily, it was a bet with a friend. Either way, my diet and exercise regime had me hyper-critical of what I put into my body. When it came to food, I became fearful of putting the wrong thing in me and I began running on fumes. By summer, I couldn’t even run anymore. I went from roughly 115 pounds to 95 pounds over a few months. I’m sure my parents were terrified. I knew I had a problem.
Ultimately, I sought help but received mixed advice nutritionally that ranged from condescending to marginally helpful. This part of my journey wasn’t about feeding ‘an athlete’: it was about staying alive. I gained necessary weight but remained extremely thin afterwards for years, and probably screwed up my metabolism in the process. Obviously, this process forced me to have a new relationship with food and how I needed to feed myself—for life and the passion I had for sports.
Post-high school, college, and graduate school I still have a lot of sport-related hobbies ranging from biking, hiking, weight-lifting, rollerblading, and frisbee. It’s important to understand how food fuels your body and how you can use food as a tool to obtain your goals healthfully and enjoyably. Just know that it is a process and we all have our own fitness journey—I hope yours is filled with delicious food.
Learn more about properly fueling your body for optimal performance with delicious and nutritious foods at Chef Stephanie’s “lunch-and-learn” class, Feeding the Athlete in You on Tuesday, April 3.