Reader To Reader: Getting over an eating disorder


We all know that running can help us control our weight, improve our fitness and, crucially, make us feel better about ourselves. But all these things are complicated when you're suffering or recovering from an eating disorder. This week's question was emailed to me by Amanda, a former ED sufferer who still worries about gaining weight – and whose weekly running programme is pretty intense for someone who's only been running for a year.

"I am a 41-year-old woman, and I started running just over a year ago. Every week I do one 15-mile hilly run, one 10-mile hilly run, one 40-min speed session, one 4-mile fast run and two 6-mile runs. I used to suffer from an eating disorder and have always been a size 8. Running is helping me with recovery mentally, but I am still terrified of gaining weight. If I eat 2,000 calories a day of the right foods, am I likely to gain weight? Should I eat more or less, or exercise mor or less?"Amanda

Your best answers

  • You're not over it – and you're not alone
    Amanda, you still have a lot of the features of an eating disorder: worrying about weight gain and body size, calorie-counting, concern about "the right foods" and, I suspect, using running primarily as a means to control your weight. There are a lot of people out there, and on this forum, who are in exactly the same position as you are. And that's OK. Eating disorders are common. People come to running from all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of hopes and expectations, and lots of athletes have disordered or obsessive attitudes to food.

    But I don't think the advice you can get from here is enough. Ideally, I'd like someone like you, who is running lots of miles, to be under the supervision of a coach who has a special interest and personal expertise in working with athletes who also have eating disorders. At the very least, I'd to think that you're getting advice from a sensible, empathetic dietician.

    The concrete answer to your question is that unless you're about 3'6" tall, on that training load you are unlikely to put on weight on 2,000 calories a day of any sort of foods. If you're a 4'11" size 8, it might just be enough to maintain your weight. Any taller and it won't be enough. As for exercising less or more... you're already doing a substantial mileage for someone who's only been running for a year, and I wouldn't advise pushing it any higher at the moment. An injury and an enforced break from running at the moment might just tip you back into a spiral of dysfunctional eating and despair, and nobody wants that for you. – Velociraptor

  • Forget calories
    Untold misery lies in being obsessed by calories, "good and bad" food, and the need to purge or compensate for calories taken in to the body, whether by being sick or by over-exercising, both of which are obvious means to compensate. Weighing every day induces panic: on gaining a pound or two, we know intellectually this may be linked to the time of the month or fluid balance but the lower brain tends to dominate and the reaction may well be one of fear and self loathing.

    I get the feeling from your letter that you're trying so hard to recover, but you're still caught in the loop of measuring exercise against calories and panicking about weight. If you're anything like average weight and height, you're not eating enough to sustain your programme of running or, crucially, to make you feel well, happy and healthy when you're not running.

    Take a step back and think: is this helping me recover or taking over from other kinds of disordered behaviour? I'd urge you to look for other help too, through the NHS, a private counsellor, the EDA, online. There is a lot of information out there. – Vinnycat

  • Check out the RW archive
    RW did a very useful article, with a long accompanying thread you might want to have a look at. However this isn't something you should try to tackle with 'self-help'. Eating disorders are far too likely to kill you, and they should not be messed around with.

    I had to take more than a year off running after I was discharged from treatment. Partly because I was a mess physically, but also because I was using running as another way to self-harm. I had to be sure I was running for the right reasons.

    When I did get back to running, it really helped to join a club. It really helped me get some perspective on a normal healthy approach to running and food, and it also helped me regain confidence and a social life. – Duck Girl

  • Food is fuel for running
    After I had my daughter at age 23, life felt totally out of control and my eating disorder became quite serious. The when I started running (about 18 months ago at age 27), and was amazed at the positive effect it had on the way I felt about myself. It helps me see food as fuel, and without enough fuel my running's not nearly as good. Running has also taught me to co-operate with my body and to feed it when it says it needs feeding! That said, I will always need to be careful. An eating disorder can be like a malevolent friend who's always there when things get bad, and running can become part of a weight obsession. – Lyra O'K
  • Eating disorders come in many shapes, but they're all insidious
    I've suffered from disordered eating for most of my life. I went to my GP and he was extremely supportive. I am very overweight and certainly don't look like the stereotypical ED sufferer, but my GP took me seriously and managed to get some counselling through the NHS, which helped a lot. It never does go away, especially when I'm under stress, but counselling has definitely helped strengthen my resolve to keep on fighting. – Happychap
  • Training can help redirect your need for control
    I know that running can be an element of an eating disorder, but in my experience sticking to a training schedule has helped take something away from the ED's. It has also encouraged me to see food as fuel that enables me to do the long runs and sprint sessions. I feel I am recovering. My diet is very healthy, and that could be seen as control, but I no longer starve myself or purge to the extent I did two years ago. Keep on going. It's never going to be a quick fix or an easy process. – Buzzstar
  • Take care with running clubs
    I used to go to a running club but I left recently. It was a very competitive place, and it was just fuelling my unhealthy obsession. I'm about to try a different club that I hope will be more relaxed. I've also been through the GP and NHS. They do what they can, but basically unless you're at death's door they are limited with what they can offer. When I did the marathon last year I was offered a nutritionist, but the waiting lists were so long that never materialised. It might be worth seeing someone privately if you can afford to. You do sound as if there are still a lot of nasty thoughts going on. Don't be fooled into thinking that because you are eating you are OK. It's not about the weight – there's much more to an eating disorder than that! – la tortuga
  • Are you really ready for running?
    Perhaps the question you could ask yourself is: is running appropriate for me right now? Running can be isolating and obsessive, as well as health-giving and satisfying, and it would be easy for it to be part of your eating disorder. If you are underweight, recovery from injury will take longer, and your running will be better if you nourish yourself properly. – ejc
  • Run for the right reasons
    I took up running about six years ago, long after I'd got over my eating disorder. I am 5' 8" and am about a size 14. I think my weight is ideal for my height and body shape, and I feel good in myself, so I don't feel you have to conform to what you hear is normal. Saying you are a size 8 says nothing. If you are 5' 7" you may be grossly underweight. Do you run because you enjoy it or because you think it will help you to lose weight and makes you feel in control? I suspect the latter. I love running and I think it is beneficial to both mind and health, but not at the level you are doing it. If you ran half as much as you do, you shouldn't need to worry about calories. I wish you the best, and hope some of the good advice on this thread helps you. – Juwl
  • You're doing too much
    You are doing a huge amount of running, and you'd probably be shocked by how much you can eat without gaining weight. In fact you might be better to run a bit less – apart from anything, it'll reduce the chance of injury. – Hot and pink!
  • Stay away from other sufferers
    Though there will always be a part of me that will have a tendency towards disordered eating, but the biggest turning point for me was the will to succeed in my running. I realise that I am actually quite good at this running lark, and I get great support from people around me. Now the fear of letting my body break down through lack of fuel is greater than the desire to lose weight. I honestly believe that it has helped me break the cycle. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to stay away from like-minded people that haven't recovered. Don't feel guilty about this. Running requires you to be fit and healthy, and it will inspire you beyond belief. I am training for a marathon, and have not weighed myself during training – and I've promised myself I won't do so, as the last thing I want is to start trying to diet whilst running 60 miles a week! – Jelly Bebe
  • See a counsellor, and be brutally honest
    My wife suffered from bulimia and later anorexia. She suffered for about 15 years and took an overdose about eight months into our relationship. All is well now; we have two great children and have been married four years. What really helped her was very honest sessions with a proper consellor, which enabled her to get to the bottom of the issues that had started the problem in the first place. – Craig Llewellyn


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