Disordered Eating, Running, and Weight Loss

Food, weight, and running: it’s not easy finding a way to talk about all three at once. Recently, we (Angelica and Cilantro) started chatting about eating disorders and weight loss in reaction to Allie Kieffer’s article on Self about the relationship between weight and running success. It turned into a tough dialogue. We came to the discussion of food and body image from two very different places that don’t often interact, especially not in women’s running: the perspective of those who struggle with disordered eating patterns, and those who do not and are seeking to lose weight to improve their running.

We came to wonder how we can talk about nutrition and running performance without reinforcing societal and cultural pressures, including those from the running world, to look a certain way or maintain a specific weight?

There isn’t a simple or easy answer. We share our conversation with you here in the hopes that we can continue to talk about food, nutrition, consumption, running and performance with respect and awareness.

Cilantro’s perspective: having struggled with disordered eating patterns and also explored eating disorders academically, I strive to craft a dialogue here at Salty Running about nutrition that focuses on overall health, not weight loss or restriction. From my perspective, having seen and experienced the very damaging aspects of the extremes of disordered eating patterns, I would much rather that someone be a little overweight (as defined medically) than say something that could reinforce disordered eating patterns in a reader, such as suggesting that there are “right” ways to eat or that runners should eat or look a certain way. Overweight for most of my young life, I started losing weight in my 20s and lost over 100 pounds before discovering running.

Angelica’s perspective: I have friends and students who have shared their struggles with disordered eating, so I agree that this topic is important. I am also mindful that some people may not want to engage in discussions about nutrition with weight loss as a goal.

I have personally tried to lose weight in order to improve my running, and I’ve found weight loss very difficult to achieve. I know many people — let’s call them “regular folks” — who would like to lose weight (and for whom this might be medically beneficial) and want to use running as a tool for weight loss. I also have many friends — let’s call them “experienced runners” — who fear conversations about weight loss because of the potential triggering effects regarding eating disorders. They understand my goal, but they don’t always agree with it. Furthermore, their “solutions” to weight loss — often something like “listen to your body” — don’t work for me and these solutions sometimes feel like they deny the struggle component of weight loss. Even though I have a truly massive social network of runners in my life, the number of people with whom I can have helpful conversations about weight loss is vanishingly small.

Here is our conversation, beginning with Angelica’s response to Allie’s article:

Angelica: I feel like there is almost no room for actual nutrition discussion for someone like me, and I suspect there are a lot of people like me. In other words: I do not have nor have ever had an eating disorder. I have carried an extra 5-25 pounds. Shedding that would help me run faster without endangering my health. I find it hard to find someone who will even acknowledge this fact, let alone give helpful advice. There’s just so much noise on the nutrition topic that it’s super hard to sort out. Intuitive eating leaves me heavier than I would like to be. So I am paying a fortune to a nutritionist even though I am smart and have great research skills.

Motherhood and academia

Mothers have a huge role in how we think about food. We both jumped there immediately in this conversation, and we aren’t the only ones to do that. Similarly, we both talked about the advantages of being academics. Being an “intellectual” or a “geek” means you are valued for something other than your looks. It also means you have skills for figuring out food/nutrition and for understanding societal pressures intellectually.

Angelica: I suspect our ability to dodge the body image/disordered eating bullet has a lot to do with the families we are born into. My mother is heavier than she wants to be, but I’ve never once heard her or anyone in my family evaluate someone’s worth based on their weight. We do talk about food a lot, and sometimes about whether it’s healthy or not. But we are not far off the farm. I am the first generation of women not to “put things up” — i.e., engage in significant gardening and preserving the “crops.” Any food pressure I have felt has come from this direction: Growing and preserving your own is best, buying and preserving someone else’s is second best but acceptable, if nothing else, at least shop at the farmer’s market, for goodness’ sake!! (Note: I do none of these things.)

Cilantro: I think the one element that differed in how we were raised was our mothers — mine was very focused on “health” and “good” and “bad” foods. I’ve always been glad that I had academia and loved to read, or I think things could have been much worse for me.

Angelica: I’ve also never felt like my value derived from my appearance. I came to geek-dom very early in life and academic achievement always came first. I think the academic tilt — your value comes from your mind — can have its disadvantages, but it does often result in a pretty healthy body image. I once had a boyfriend tell me he thought I should lose weight. I lit into him about eating disorders and what a bullshit thing that was to say. It didn’t cross my mind to think he was correct — i.e., the conversation did not cause me to worry about my actual weight. If someone tried to question my intelligence, though, I would feel much more challenged and angry, more personally attacked.

Cilantro: Academics always came first for me too, both personally and in my family. Being able to explore disordered eating from an academic angle helped me immensely to understand how and why I felt the pressures I did. Through my work, I stopped seeing disordered eating patterns as either/or (you have it or you don’t), I see it as a continuum. Someone at different points in their life can be further to one side or the other of the continuum of eating patterns. Similarly, people can be at different points on the continuum at a snapshot in time. For example, I have struggled more with restricting my intake when the rest of my life is out of control, so I’ve moved back and forth (but each time I learn better how to cope and staying closer to the center of the healthy relationship with food spectrum).

I don’t see disordered eating as a condition that one either has or does not have. I call that the ED deficiency model: it ignores the social and cultural pressures on women to look and act a certain way, not to mention elements of systematic disempowerment that may lead some women (and men) to seek to gain control of their lives through food. That’s what I mean when I refer to it as a spectrum too — even if we as women have a healthy relationship with food, our lives are still influenced, in some way, by the society that marginalizes, disempowers, and tells women they need to look a certain way to be successful. This pressure goes double for some runners, especially when they are told they must lose weight to be “faster” or look more like a runner.

Angelica: That’s a really interesting idea. Like you could slip back and forth about it. Which is one reason why the comments that tend to trigger can be so dangerous.

Finding and maintaining a healthy weight

Angelica: When I decided to try to lose weight on my own, I really struggled. It was hard to figure out how to do it. I had some coaches tell me they didn’t want to engage in discussing weight loss for the purpose of athletic performance with female athletes because they were worried about eating disorders. When I raise the issue of weight loss for performance, my closest friends and training partners have been much more likely to express concern about a possible eating disorder than to offer support or advice. I train with and share meals with some of these women on a regular basis. If they truly think about it, they know I do not have an eating disorder. I appreciate this concern on the part of coaches and friends, but it can also hinder genuine conversation sometimes. It’s also true that coaches and friends may not know how to lose weight in a way that helps with athletic goals. That is to say, “Don’t eat dumb sh*t” is great advice for some people, but not useful to me.

Cilantro: Just like training plans, diet is personal and subjective too. So what works for one might not work for all, but we can frame nutrition advice from our own experience, not as directive, or we can summarize the research similar to what Matt Fitzgerald does (unless we are nutritionists), all will be valuable and timely.

Angelica: As an athlete — I still can barely type that here, though I have much less trouble claiming that title in other places — it’s been hard to get information about food that I find trustworthy. There are a zillion diets and nutrition plans out there and everyone is sure theirs is correct.

I have worked with my personal trainer to lose weight and he has been incredibly helpful. When I paid the money for the airline ticket to Jacksonville, I also said, “F*ck it. You just spent $300 to fly to Florida to run a damn marathon. You know you will run this thing faster if you are 5-10 pounds lighter. You know your relationship with food is healthy and you just have no idea how to lose that weight. Get some help.” That’s when I hired the sports nutritionist.

Working with the sports nutritionist has been fantastic because he understands endurance athletes, he is not selling powders, etc. He’s very scientific, as am I, and he doesn’t talk down to me or ever pretend that weight doesn’t matter for running. Because that’s an issue I’ve had — people who say, just train better and don’t worry about the weight. Well, that is fabulous if you have a tendency to be underweight or a tendency to disordered eating, but much less fabulous if your farm-stock history means you tend to eat quite healthy food but also tend to carry the 10 pounds around that you would need if you were say, actually going to work on a farm, lol.

Cilantro: Yes, I understand that completely! I struggled to find resources I could trust, that were backed by research, and that didn’t seem “fad-y.” That’s part of why I like Fitzgerald’s books so much. I started with Racing Weight, which really wasn’t something that initially appealed to me because I wasn’t trying to lose weight. But Diet Cults and the Endurance Diet helped me change my relationship with food, made sense with the research and anecdotal evidence, and had an easy-to-follow plan.

It works for me, but of course, we are all different and struggle with different things! For me, it gives me something positive to focus on and helps me to think about food as fuel.

Angelica: The last thing I would want to do is write something hurtful because I know enough about ED through friends to understand how serious they are. But I also know that for me, I needed more concrete information and the fear of triggering among “experienced runners” meant that this resource — so helpful on other topics! — wasn’t available to me in the way I expected it to be. It was a huge relief when my current coach simply said, yes, weight matters (after I brought the topic up). But it feels like such a taboo topic that it’s hard to get info or talk about when actually, information is really what I need.

Cilantro: We can talk about food and nutrition here at Salty Running too, it’s possible to have this conversation without creating “triggering” messages — although triggering messages will still be important to avoid. When we talk about food as fuel and nutrition, we can be careful we don’t reinforce societal pressures on women to look or be a certain way, but, instead to do awesome things (like run, fast!) and live better.

How do we talk about food in a way that promotes health and performance without unhealthy restriction? Do those conversations need to be mutually exclusive?

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  1. As a Registered Dietitian who has also had some experience in the past with disordered eating and the rampant culture of disordered eating in the world of competitive running, I have a lot of thoughts on this.

    Are articles about weight loss potentially triggering to people in the early stages of eating disorder recovery? Absolutely. But does that mean that we should avoid writing about them to meet the needs of the audience on the other end of the spectrum? Not necessarily. But as a dietitian, I would emphasize that in giving any type of nutrition advice, it should be, above all things- not harmful, evidence-based, and sustainable. As a female runner, to me that means- not cutting out large food groups, making sure (if you’re pre-menopausal) that you get a regular period, and making sure it doesn’t leave you in the cycle of yo-yo dieting after over-restriction leads to potential overeating to compensate.

    I would also encourage anyone seeking personalized nutrition advice to seek out a Registered Dietitian, preferably one with a specialized certification in sports nutrition (a CSSD). There are many really great dietitians out there that are specially trained to work with athletes and have your long-term health in mind.

    1. Thank you for weighing in – I really appreciate your perspective and input. We strive to have conversations about food in these ways here, but a reminder (or even a good head’s up) can help us to stay on track.

      1. I absolutely agree – the idea really can’t be to shut down information and communication. Instead, we have to find a way to talk about these issues that works for all concerned or at least works for most people, which may be the best we can do.

  2. I really appreciate this discussion. As the mother of a teenager in treatment for an ED, though, I’d just caution against the idea that certain things (your mother and her relationship with food, an academic bent) can somehow inoculate you (or anyone) against an ED. The sources are complex, multifaceted and not completely known. But my daughter is smart and a staunch feminist, I’ve never in her lifetime had an unhealthy relationship to food, and yet she developed anorexia. Genetics are probably part of the problem, but honestly, we just don’t know, and thinking it’s as simple as “If I model healthy eating and body image my children will be healthy” can both lead us to
    miss warning signs and create unnecessary and undeserved guilt.

    1. Yes, I think that is such an important point. I think, sometimes, we want to find something to blame, but it is far to reductionist to simplify down to one factor (and it is incredibly problemmatic to assume that feminists, like me, wont have these struggles too! It’s not a commentary on being weak or not smart enough when one struggles with disordered eating patterns. In fact, sometimes, it’s the strongest or most successful that do)! Thinking of you and your daughter.

      1. Totally agree that this is a really complicated, multifaceted issue. I suspect many of the factors related to the manifestation of an eating disorder don’t have anything at all to do with eating and as you point out, genetics is a likely piece of the puzzle. Sending good wishes to you both.