Diet & Nutrition

White Ferns star Bernadine Bezuidenhout ‘I had an eating disorder’

After taking a brave step to turn her life around, the cricketer is now helping others
Bernadine Bezuidenhout in a grey blazer standing in front of some green plants

Ever since she was 10 years old and living in South Africa, Bernadine Bezuidenhout had been identified as a freakishly talented athlete. She dedicated her childhood to becoming a cricketer and, after moving to New Zealand, was thrilled to be named in the White Ferns team in 2018.

But greatness felt pretty far away three years ago, when the batter and wicketkeeper found herself in hospital, weighing about 52kg, unable to keep food down and struggling to stay awake.

“It was a really tough time,” recalls Bernie, who was diagnosed with relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S).

“I reflect on it now and I definitely had an eating disorder. RED-S means you’re training too much and eating too little.”

Now well on her way to recovery, Bernie is back playing for the White Ferns after taking two years off to regain her health. But the athlete says the road has been a long one and it’s not over yet.

“Sometimes you have to lose something to really appreciate it and that’s what happened with cricket,” she tells. “If someone had told me two years ago that I’d be playing for New Zealand again, I wouldn’t have believed them.”

Determined to compete in international cricket from a young age, Bernie threw herself into training as a young girl. At 17, she became amenorrheic, meaning her periods stopped. She says, “I remember thinking, ‘Yay!’ at the time because they’re such a pain, so I just kept it to myself and didn’t think much of it.”

Making the move to Aotearoa when she was 20, after representing South Africa in T20 and One Day International matches, Bernie then focused on becoming a White Fern. But it was when she began playing for our national side that her health took a turn for the worse.

“It was really bad,” she admits. “I was doing loads of training – I’m a big runner as well – but I was only eating about 1000 calories a day. Honestly, it’s challenging to consume enough calories while training a lot, and living off vegetables and grilled chicken breast.”

Bernie reckons she was burning around 4000 calories a day with her training schedule, leaving her with a 3000-calorie deficit. As a trained nutritionist, Bernie knew this wasn’t good, but her desire to be “fit” and being addicted to running outweighed everything else.

“This picture was taken a couple years ago when I was extremely lean – and extremely ill.”

“Cricket is such a cut-throat sport,” she tells. “It’s a team sport, but very individual. The game is something you can’t control, but fitness was. I could try to be the fittest in the team. I was little bit of an addict.

“I’m a health freak. My passion, determination and drive became dangerous. I didn’t know what the limits were. I remember being so tired most days, I was nearly falling asleep behind the wheel when driving.”

Finally realising things had to change, Bernie – with the support of New Zealand Cricket – reached out to former Silver Ferns star Dr Lesley Nicol, now a sports and exercise physician, who was able to offer some sage advice.

“She told me that if I carried on the way I was, my career would be over in a year. I was 26 at the time. I had to make a decision – take a few years off and maybe play another 10 or not. I’d lost the joy of playing cricket and I needed a break. So I did and it was the best decision I could’ve made.”

Figuring out what to do in her cricket hiatus while recovering from RED-S was the next hard part, but guided by her Christian faith, Bernie got an “awesome gig” working with youth at Christchurch Men’s Prison. She smiles, “It set my heart aflame – I’d found my purpose. Working there changed my life.”

The experience also led Bernie to set up her own not-for-profit, the Epic Sports Project, which uses sport and dance as vehicles to connect with thousands of youth from disadvantaged communities

in Christchurch, surrounding them with good role models and inspiring them to hope for a better future.

She reflects, “Everything happens for a reason and this whole thing has really taught me the importance of balance – that you shouldn’t have just one thing in life. I’m so much happier now.”

Speaking to us just ahead of the White Ferns tour of Sri Lanka, Bernie says she’s 80-95% recovered from her RED-S and she’s still putting in an effort to make sure she stays on the right track.

Bernie’s now hitting her fears out of the park.

She doesn’t participate in any weigh-ins and has most of her meals delivered by FitFood to make sure she’s getting the right amount of nutrition.

“The White Ferns are a family and the support I have from them is amazing,” she enthuses. “I know what my red flags are now and I know to listen to my body to ensure I don’t go back to where I was. Honestly, I’m bloody proud of myself for getting here and I’m so excited for the future.”

To get involved with Epic Sports Project or to donate, visit epicsportsproject.com. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, visit ed.org.nz or phone 0800 2 EDANZ.

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