Matt Lawson is a coach and dietitian who has spent his whole career helping professional footballers learn how to meet their nutritional needs. Having worked with players at several clubs and in a public health role with the NHS, Matt takes a holistic approach to nutrition and has extensive experience supporting elite athletes with eating disorders. For Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we caught up with Matt to find out how eating disorders can impact PFA members and how they can build a healthier relationship with food.
Matt, has there been a rise in football-related eating disorders?
Yes. Those involved in football have definitely seen a rise over the last 20 years. A 2004 study by the Norwegian University of Sport found that Norway’s elite athletes were three times more likely to have an eating disorder compared to the general Norwegian population, and I would expect that to be replicated in the UK as well. There’s a misconception that disordered eating is exclusively a female issue, but the reality is there are just as many men struggling with eating disorders, particularly in male sports.
Does social media contribute to body image pressure for players?
We’re all under pressure to look a certain way, and I think social media is a huge burden on anyone playing football because everything is studied now, everything is on camera, and everybody’s got an opinion. I know footballers who have been tortured and trolled online and called fat, skinny, lazy or underperforming, which can play on their minds.
Is there a relationship between nutritionally optimised diets and disordered eating?
Being an athlete means you need a well-balanced diet, but if the strict diets players are following aren’t optimised correctly, they aren’t likely to be healthy. Of course, there's a very fine line between nutritional awareness and disordered eating, but I would argue that good awareness means you understand the importance of meeting your carbohydrate, protein and fat requirements at key times, loading before a game because you’re about to burn all your energy off and recovering, refuelling and rehydrating afterwards.
Which players are most at risk of developing an eating disorder?
I think footballers that have just finished playing are definitely at risk because you lose all that structure overnight, and suddenly, you're not a footballer anymore. Sometimes a player might want to hang on to that lifestyle and go over the top restricting food or trying to keep themselves fit, or it can go the other way, where players can often end up with quite unhealthy binge eating or drinking behaviours. Similarly, there’s massive pressure on academy players, so it’s no surprise that worrying about securing a professional contract can also lead to food restriction, improper refuelling and disordered eating.
What signs could point to an eating disorder in professional footballers?
The physical signs would be weight loss, having dizzy spells, feeling faint, or things like wrapping up more for training when they shouldn't be feeling cold. For women, signs could also include reports of dry skin or disrupted menstrual cycles. However, you won’t always see an eating disorder, so you have to look out for things like counting calories, restricting food intake or following faddy diets. Perhaps the player is fasting or carb-cutting and only putting protein and a bit of veg on their plates. Most clubs will feed players breakfast, so skipping that breakfast and training without having it could also be a sign. You also need to watch out for things we’d always look for with any mental health condition, such as not being themselves and not performing as they normally would.
What help is available for players who might have an eating disorder?
If somebody is struggling, they should speak to somebody at their club. If they're not able to go to the manager or coach, then perhaps there's a member of the medical team they could speak to or even somebody in the back office or HR. If that's not an option, players should call the PFA, who can help members access dietetic support if they need it. The PFA team can put players in touch with me, and I'm happy to offer whatever support is needed.
How can PFA members create a better relationship with food?
I encourage players to think about food like putting fuel into a car – it helps you get where you want to go. It’s so important we fuel our bodies correctly, and there are ways to meet your nutritional requirements from whatever type of cuisine you like. I think once that lightbulb moment goes off, it's easy for players to understand that what they’re putting into their bodies directly impacts their performance. However, I also think it’s important not to get too hung up on it. I certainly don’t recommend counting calories, dangerous meal replacement drinks or using apps that track food intake because that can lead to obsessive behaviour. Footballers tend to need to eat more than the average person, so we don’t want players to restrict their eating - we want them to feel good as a result of it. I believe taste is one of life’s great pleasures, and I want players to enjoy what they eat because when they do, they’re more likely to have the right balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats to keep their muscles going. Ultimately, we want to support players to live well, so they can deliver on the pitch and be the best versions of themselves because then everybody wins.
Eating Disorders can take many forms and affect footballers at any stage of their career. If you’re worried about your relationship with food, get in touch with our Wellbeing team for free, confidential advice and support.