Disordered Eating: Running on Empty

Discover how the pressures of performance and self image can take you across the line from smart nutrition to damaging ‘disordered eating’

by Caleb Daniloff

disordered eating running

A pound up from yesterday. The scales now read 11st 4lb. And after a run. I step into the shower and scrub the dirt off my calves and ankles, the sweat from my face, from behind my ears.

I know it’s irrational, but a germ of a thought percolates in my brain: maybe, just maybe, collectively erasing these micrograms from my skin will bring me into 11st 3lb territory. I dry myself off and step back on the scales.

I’m running my first marathon next month and, at 5ft 8in, I want to toe the line at 11st. I’m hellbent on breaking four hours. I look down at the same unfeeling numbers. OK, cancel tomorrow’s rest day. Later, as I pack my lunch – debating whether to have one or two mini bagels to go with a wedge of light cream cheese and an apple – I pray it’s nobody’s birthday at the office today. Cake is the devil.

Discipline or disorder?

Little did I know then that nutritionists have a proper term for this swirl of thinking: disordered eating. Eating disorders I knew about, but I was hardly a skeletal anorexic, nor did I purge my meals at the u-bend. I was simply a dedicated runner with what I considered serious willpower. Didn’t a marathon demand Spartan discipline?

When I posted my registration, I was 39 years old with a daddy belly and a double chin. I’d been running for six years, mostly five-mile stretches. I hovered around 12 and a half stone, and was prone to shin splints and knee pain. Obviously, 26.2 miles of asphalt could be a problem. The thought of being branded a DNF was my worst nightmare. But somewhere, I’d heard that I could run about two seconds per mile faster for every pound I lost. Accurate or not, this information radically changed my diet.

For the first time in my life, I started scrutinising nutrition labels. I broke things off with meat and learned to love tofu and soya milk. For breakfast, it was fruit and fat-free yoghurt. I’d begin my small dinners with a boiled broccoli starter. No puddings. As my weekly miles piled up, my waistline started shrinking. I announced each lost pound to my wife like a sniper taking out an enemy soldier. The flattened landscape of my belly made me swoon.

Food became one of my mind’s favourite topics. I got off on the sensation of my stomach grumbling and learned to fall asleep hungry. But god forbid the scale go up. If it did, I seethed.

“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,” says Patricia Kaminski, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Texas, US, who’s helped many people with eating disorders. “If running five miles is good training, then running 10 is better. If a 1,200-calorie diet can help me lose weight, then a 500-calorie diet must be great.”

Disordered eating differs from an eating disorder in that food intake isn’t manipulated to deal with underlying issues of depression, anxiety, self-esteem and control. The most common eating disorders – anorexia and bulimia – are serious psychiatric illnesses with significant physical consequences, and can be fatal.

Disordered eating, on the other hand, refers to less-severe abnormal behaviours: eliminating food groups from your diet; regularly replacing meals with energy bars; excessive weighing and calorie-counting; and tacking on extra miles as ‘punishment’ for a cheeseburger the night before. Often, the regime includes compulsive exercising.

Female runners

The condition is far more common among female runners, mirroring the trend seen in the general public. There are no precise figures on how many people are affected in the UK, but research from the US gives a good impression of the reach of the problem.

A University of North Carolina study estimated that three out of four American women between the ages 25 and 45 practise disordered eating. A report in the Journal of American College Health showed more than a quarter of US female college athletes exhibit disordered eating patterns. And in surveys of collegiate athletes, 55 per cent of women told researchers they experience pressure (both external and self-imposed) to achieve a certain weight, with 43 per cent saying they’re ‘terrified’ of becoming too heavy. Men who compete in sport where body shape and size are important are also at higher risk for disordered eating.

Weighing the costs

The costs can be enormous: prolonged disordered eating can lead to anemia; loss of muscle strength, endurance and coordination; more frequent injuries, including stress fractures; longer recovery time after intense workouts and races; anxiety; and fertility issues in women. Probably the most disturbing consequence, however, is the onset of a  full-blown eating disorder.

Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at Pittsburgh’s UPMC Centre for Sports Medicine, says the most common sign of disordered eating is when food choices become about what not to eat.

“A lot of people have their good-food list and their bad-food list,” says Bonci. “Nothing high in fat, nothing fried. They’ll eat only organic, only local, and won’t touch anything processed. They might avoid social situations because they don’t know what the food will be.”

Obviously, runners – especially marathoners – have greater nutritional needs than sofa spuds. An endurance athlete’s ideal fuel is glycogen, carbohydrates stored in the muscles and liver. A low-carb lifestyle is counterproductive. When glycogen stores are low, protein, which is essential for muscle growth and repair, may be robbed for energy. Zinc and vitamins A, B6 and E are important for the immune system and bone health, but are found in red meat, nuts, and dairy – seen as kryptonite by fat-phobes.

“When you look at a lot of the media, the message is that everybody needs to lose weight or restrict their diet,” says psychotherapist and former US marathon champion Jane Welzel. “Instead of how you should support your lifestyle through nutrition, the message is reduce carbs and fats, or this has a high glycaemic index, or don’t eat too many bananas. It’s the sound bites, the headlines, that grab attention. Then people add it to their list of rules. It’s totally out of context for what they need to support their training.”

While not all disordered eating leads to an eating disorder, almost all eating disorders start as disordered eating, so it’s scary territory for a runner, particularly if you’re emotionally vulnerable or highly stressed. Manipulating your food and your body offers a sense of control, a substitute for happiness that may be absent when you’re not laced in running shoes.

“People lose weight and run faster,” says Bonci. “But for some it becomes addictive. It’s a really a fine line between healthy and unhealthy weight loss, and a lot of people straddle that line every day.”

Back from the brink

I got a close-up glimpse of that line when I attempted to keep up with David Proctor on a training run. A former British junior 800m champion, Proctor had broken the four-minute mile the year before. He moved effortlessly, limbs etched with muscle, loose yet under control. He was also just two months past his second bout of anorexia. And all in the name of speed.

Originally from Rochdale, Proctor had been recruited to Boston University on a sports scholarship. Tall and naturally slim, he touched down in autumn 2004 weighing 10st 5lb. By mid November he’d put on a stone, and one day his coach ribbed him about his affection for American cuisine.

“It was totally innocent, the way guys joke with each other,” Proctor later told me. “But then I thought about it. And once I weighed myself and processed it, I felt like a failure. If putting on weight makes you slower, then I’m letting the team down. I’m failing.”

So just like that, Proctor all but cut out breakfast and lunch – disordered eating. “Any food that had very low to zero fat got a tick,” he says. “Anything that had more than a gram or two of fat per serving was out. Fruit was on the list until I found it had a really high sugar content.”

He worked himself down to 500kcal a day, and within a couple of weeks, he’d shed almost two and a half stone. Not for a second did he see this as abnormal. “Running is so focused on numbers; you run your repetitions at this time, your recovery at this time,” he says. “This just seemed like an extension of that.”

Proctor was determined to break a college record, and every hunger pang confirmed his dedication. Soon, he was seeing the shaved-down numbers on his stopwatch. Like a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit, he kept pursuing that next ounce, that next half-pound. By mid December, the six-footer stood a gaunt 9st 7lbs. Still, he scrutinised his reflection, pinching skin, convinced it was fat. “I was on the scales every hour,” he says. “I’d weigh myself before and after peeing.”

After passing out during a run, when not a morsel had touched his lips for three days, he met with a nutritionist. Not to add the fats and proteins his body craved, but for tips on how to lose weight without fainting. He was a full-blown anorexic.

Paradoxically, he clocked his best 800m, 1:50.54, that winter. And it was just before Easter when he dipped to 9st 3lb – after a long morning run, with no food or drink in his system. It was a moment of glory, almost ecstasy. Still, he had rules. No dinner until six. He was famished and had hours to go. He lay on his bed to pass the time.

“I was so dehydrated, I was nauseous,” he says. “It was disgusting. I lay there at 5:50pm praying for the clock to tick round to six so I could have dinner.” Then he had a moment of clarity. “I don’t know where it came from, but I just thought, ‘This is stupid, it’s a difference of 10 minutes. You’re waiting, eyes fixed on the clock, almost passing out you’re so tired.’”

While the doors to some of Proctor’s darker rooms would remain closed – he admits to trust issues and a ‘desperate desire’ to achieve greatness – that spring, a sports nutritionist and sports psychology professor helped him grasp the concept of the body as a machine that needed proper fuelling to run efficiently.

Slowly, he began to eat more and relaxed his rules. Two seasons later came Proctor’s crowning achievement – breaking the     four-minute mile, capturing the second-fastest US college time that year with 3:59.14. During his final sprint, he weighed 11st, just eight pounds less than where it all started. But like many anorexics, he would relapse several times before moving into a period of sustained recovery.

“I still define myself by my successes and failures,” says Proctor, back in England and running races for Rochdale Harriers. “But I look for them elsewhere, not just on the track.”

On the next page: Discover how your weight impacts on your run and the nutrition 'rules' you need to break.

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Discuss this article

wow,quite a story.All the best for the future and anyone else with eating disorders.

Posted: 19/11/2013 at 12:33

A very fine line I'd say. After being poked fun at for being "fat" and going from 13st to 10st about 6 years ago - it's why I started running (or jogging at the time!)

However I've found as I've taken training more seriously I want to be healthy and well fuelled so the opposte applies. I would say I'm cautious about what I eat rather than gorging on anything you'd put in front of me as I used to!

Posted: 19/11/2013 at 13:04

What an eye-opening article! In contrast to the lettuce comment in the article, I assumed that elite athletes carefully prescribed everything that they ate to maximise their performance - it's scary to think that they could get an eating disorder, and even scarier to realise that this could actually provide a short-term boost to their performance.

For us mere mortals, I'd guess most just want to be a healthy weight, while runners will also consider how much weight they really want to carry around in a race for e.g. 26.2 miles. Unfortunately, as this personal and honest article highlights, there is so much misinformation around diet and nutrition that it's incredibly easy for an amateur to get it very, very wrong.

Posted: 20/11/2013 at 10:47

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