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June 16, 2017

Disordered Eating and the Slope to Eating Disorders

We’d be remiss if we didn’t broach the subject of a more serious and concerning side of eating and nutrition, especially within the running sphere during Food Week. You probably know someone or at least know someone who knows someone that has been affected by an eating disorder in some way. If you don’t, maybe you do without realizing it. While eating disorders are extremely prevalent in the running world, they’re stigmatized, swept under the rug and rarely talked about. I remember a few teammates of mine having private meetings with our coach, then a nutritionist and then going to special sessions in the weight room just for them. It wasn’t openly discussed what was going on, why they were being separated from the rest of the team. But I knew. We all knew. Eating disorders don’t arrive out of thin air. Eating habits can slide from healthy to hyper-healthy to disordered, quickly. It’s a slope that I think almost every serious runner has toed at some point in their career.

This is how it can happen:

In the swing of some good training momentum, you’re feeling great–superhuman even–and you want to sustain that by avoiding injury. So you decide to be smart. You make a concerted effort to supplement your increased fitness with vitamin-rich meals; lots of salads and vegetables. Things with calcium and iron, so your body can continue to kick ass. And then because you’re becoming conscious of putting good food into your body to help recover and fuel, it feels natural to start cutting out the things that aren’t as healthy. You stop picking up that handful of mouthwatering snickerdoodle cookies on your way out of the dining hall. Goodbye to nighttime trips to Dairy Queen. So long gas station bag of Doritos. And yes, if you’re training at a high level, cutting Doritos out is honestly probably for the best. I’m not a dietician, but I’m confident you can’t fortify bones or rebuild muscle with anything as artificially orange as Doritos.

The heart of the problem is that sometimes it doesn’t stop with Doritos. Next, you might stop eating anything with fat, even good, healthy fats, like avocados or nut butters. Maybe then you cut out refined carbs. Slowly, you start to restrict the amount you eat of any and all foods. You allow yourself to feel hungry throughout the day. Actually, you strive for that.

Runners can become obsessive. By nature, competitive runners are always pushing at the boundaries of getting faster, going longer, harder, doing more reps, constantly improving. So it’s not difficult to imagine some of that mentality to leak over into an athlete’s approach to eating. The sport is already so centered around numbers–how many miles can you run, how fast can you run those miles, how fast can you run your workout intervals, what are your PRs, how light can your shoes/spikes be–that it easily translates into questions about number of pounds, and how light you can be for “racing weight”–  an irrational concept that promotes the idea that you should be lighter to race better and/or faster.

This is part of why it happens:

To complicate matters, there’s the fact that as you restrict what you eat and lose weight, you might actually feel fitter, or even become faster. For a little. It’s something that Michigan State runner Rachele Schulist addressed in her public, personal post about her own experience with an eating disorder during her running career. A Runner’s World article about her story describes how, as the number on the scale fell for Rachel, “so did her race times. ‘It does work–for a little while,’ [Rachele] said. ‘That’s the worst part about it.’ On paper, that year was a breakthrough one.”

Because of this, distance runners are especially vulnerable to eating disorders. The comprehensive site on eating disorders, Eating Disorder Hope states that, “research has shown that both female and male athletes are at greatest risk for developing an eating disorder in sports where leanness confers a competitive advantage, such as long distance running.”

This is what it’s like when it happens:

It’s a scary thing. It’s an obsession, a compulsion and an addiction that can take over a person’s mind and take over that person in general. One of the best things I’ve read about eating disorders was a blog post by Phoebe Wright and it explains the same spiral I describe above with, “[An eating disorder] starts off as a nutrition goal. It makes the person feel good. It provides immediate results, and it is easy to correlate these results to the food. It hooks them in by appearing to be beneficial.”

Once you’ve been hooked, it’s extremely difficult to separate yourself from the new, unhealthy mindset. Wright aptly puts it this way: “There is a metaphor called the boiling frog problem: If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out. If you put a frog in a pot of warm water and slowly heat it up, it will boil to death because it doesn’t perceive danger. The onset is too gradual for the frog to notice a problem.”

I also think Wright hits the nail on the head with the way eating disorders become linked to a person’s identity. As it gets harder to hide a shrinking body, that person might draw back and isolate themselves so that friends or family are less likely to acknowledge the situation. They don’t want it to be recognized, because then they’d have to admit that it’s there themselves, start addressing the issue, and putting a stop to the disorder. And since their identity is so entwined with the disorder, they (even subconsciously) want to protect the disorder.

Anorexia or an eating disorder in general, doesn’t just affect the one person experiencing it directly. It can affect relationships with teammates, coaches, and friends. Disorders can breed confusion, frustration, and resentment in all parties. “It’s a hard place for a whole team,” Leah O’Connor told Runner’s World about training with Rachele as a teammate while Schulist suffered from her disorder. “And especially for the person who’s dealing with it.” It can be difficult to be sensitive to the mental battle a person with an eating disorder is fighting. I remember thinking, heartlessly, the first time I encountered someone with a disorder, “it’s not that hard. All they have to do is just let themselves eat.”

This is how we can help it not happen:

Maybe part of why eating disorders are so impossible to both address publicly and come to terms with is that it could easily be any one of us. There are no prerequisites for eating disorders. At any moment, any person, regardless of gender, race, age, or sexuality could slide down the slope of disordered eating. It’s a razor-fine line between eating well and letting concerns about eating consume you. Eating is something we all do, multiple times a day, so that fine line between being conscious of what you’re putting in your mouth and being overly conscious about it is something that could feasibly crop up for any of us. It helps explain the prevalence of it in our sport.

The only way to try to combat this prevalence is to listen and listen hard whenever anyone is brave enough to open up about their experience. Eating disorders don’t get talked about as openly or often as they should, but any time people share their own story and hear from others about their similar or different experiences, it’s well-received and powerful. As Wright puts it, “we’ve got to expose the weapons and make people aware that there is a difference between an eating disorder and a person. And then we have to love the ever living heck out of the person and help them be strong enough to fight the disorder.” I think it’s that, yes. But it’s also about realizing, accepting and supporting the concept that successful distance runners don’t all have to be one size.

As Schulist told Chris Chavez in an interview for Sports Illustrated, it’s important not to “compare yourself to others. At the end of the day, the only thing you can control is yourself and your mentality. You have to trust yourself. Trust your body. Trust your training and trust the process. You don’t get somewhere overnight. At the collegiate level, it can take years to develop. Also have confidence in yourself. I can acknowledge this is how I am. This is how I was built. I’m going to go, run like hell, and show that I’m proud of it. What your body may look like when you compete at your best may be different than someone else and that’s OK. Just own it.” Rachele Schulist was All-American in 2014 when she was in the thick of her eating disorder. She worked for over a year to recover from that disorder and then, as a runner and person who was much healthier and happier, she was once again an All-American in 2016.

We’re also here to listen and if you want to discuss the issue further, please feel free to reach out at any time by emailing us at [email protected].

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