Are you or somebody you know a Type A+ Hard-worker+ Perfectionist+ People Pleaser+ Control Freak+ Long-Distance Runner? If so, then you or she is at high risk for running with an eating disorder.
Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive exercise are way too common among women athletes, especially runners. According to research, more than 1/3 of female college athletes have some type of disordered eating and between 2-3% have a full-fledged eating disorder. We’ve covered the topic of The Female Athlete Triad in past Salty posts, and we saw that the topic peaked some interest and hit close to home for some readers and me.
As most of you know I am recovering from my own battle with ED and today I want to continue the conversation about anorexia, bulimia and exercise addiction to help those readers who may be suffering.
According to this USA Today excerpt, addictive personalities tend to gravitate toward athletics. Kimiko Soldati, a 2004 Olympic diver who struggled with bulimia captured it best when she said “It would be hard to find a female athlete in the aesthetic sports — gymnastics, diving, cheerleading, figure skating, dancing — who isn’t preoccupied with body image and somewhat obsessive about what she is eating.” While running isn’t necessarily an aesthetic sport, I think this holds true for many of us too.
What drives runners to take such extreme measures in the first place? Do lighter athletes run faster? Temporarily, some might. This happened to me when I first started restricting a few months before the Cleveland marathon and ran my personal record there. But the intensive strain of running requires an ample flow of caloric fuel, and after the shock wears off , the body gets smart. The body will start eating away at muscle once little to no fat remains. Long-term effects of starvation start to set in, and running faster becomes a thing of the past. The body is an amazing thing, and it will shut down other functions to focus on the things that really matter: like keeping the heart beating. Long-term effects can be detrimental, placing extreme stress on the body, with imbalanced electrolyte and potassium levels for binge-purgers and supplemental low heart rates and irregular heart beats, which can be lethal. Luckily, once in recovery, most damage is reversible.
Recovery from full-fledged eating disorders can take years, and unfortunately, recovery is not an easy thing. According to Dr. David Rosen of the University of Michigan, eating disorders kill more people than all of the other mental illnesses combined, including depression.
Eating Disorders versus Disordered Eating
You might be thinking to yourself: this post is definitely not for me; I’ll never have an eating disorder. But, I encourage you to keep reading. Back in 2005, my behaviors started slowly, where I only ate certain types of food or exercised a bit more than usual. I thought nothing of it. Unfortunately, my motive to “lose just a pound or two” to run a little bit “faster” turned into a full-fledged eating disorder about six months later. The habits became intense and hard to break.
While not all disordered eating leads directly to an eating disorder (definitely not), almost all eating disorders start as disordered eating. For female runners, it’s a really fine line that can be straddled daily. Running, after all, leads to a lifestyle of focusing on health, including healthy food. When being conscious of healthy choices turns to an obsession, though, a problem may be on the horizon.
As eating disorder expert Patricia Kaminski of the University of North Texas says, “The more competitive people are, even if they’re just competitive with themselves, the more likely they are to have the kind of extremist thinking that can lead to disordered eating patterns. If running five miles is going to help me train well, then running 10 is better. If a 1,200-calorie diet is good to help me lose weight, then a 500-calorie diet must be great.” Have you ever battled with these type of thoughts?
Signs of Disordered Eating
From mild to extreme, disordered eating doesn’t mean you have a full-fledged problem; however, if taken to the extreme, a problem may start developing. Nip it in the bud! If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms (of course, I’m not a registered dietician or anything of the sorts…but my personal experience says…), please talk to someone!
- I’m always on or off a diet.
- I spend most of my day planning out my food.
- I make a lot of food for other people but will usually not allow myself to eat it.
- If I miss a work out, I feel like I can’t eat as much.
- I don’t trust myself around food.
- I know if I eat normally, I am going to gain weight.
- I get really anxious if I miss my usual run.
- I feel fat on a regular basis.
- I’ve cut out a lot of foods (starches, fats, sugars, carbs) in order to eat “healthy.” I stick to safe foods like fruits and veggies.
- I weigh myself daily, and the number determines my mood.
- I’m constantly thinking that I’m not thin enough.
It’s normal for both men and women to have occasional negative thoughts about their bodies. It becomes troublesome, though, when it gets obsessive and such thoughts rear their ugly head on a daily basis. When I’m not able to go out and pound some pavement, sometimes I still turn to the destructive behavior of restricting, especially when stress is high whether at school or at work.
It took me many years to truly admit that I had a problem. Such is the usual story of most people with eating disorders. We whisper about it and keep it hush hush; we rarely want to discuss it in public. We deny it. But, all too often, this dirty little secret is too close to home to female long-distance runners. More pro-athletes and public figures have come forward with such struggles as of late, in the hopes of raising awareness and erasing the stigma that eating disorders are self-inflicted and selfish. I think it’s working and am hopeful that this trend of striving for extreme thinness dissipates.
Have you or another runner you know suffered from an ED?