Disordered eating among women runners

I have lots of topics I want to touch on today, including: why the world wanted me to take five days off from swimming (closures at my two usual pools *and* my back-up pool for renovations and bad weather); why yoga pants make me want to cry (they are SO TIGHT!); why I’m buying yoga pants (hello, new fitness venture!); and why skipping your swim for the stationary bike isn’t so bad (especially when someone leaves a copy of the New Yorker for you to read).

But I’m saving all that for later, in order to touch on what might be the most important, and most heartbreaking, topic I’ve stumbled across in my few years of health and fitness writing: Disordered eating among women athletes, which I wrote a story about for the new issue of Women’s Running magazine. Take a few minutes to read it. Then … let’s talk.

First, let me just say that I didn’t expect to identify with the women I was writing about. My eating habits are perfectly normal, especially compared to my other female runner-friends. But the more I talked to the experts working to combat disordered eating, and the women suffering from it, the more I realized: I’ve got some work to do.

Saying my eating habits are normal compared to my women runner-friends—or the running community in general—isn’t saying much, and it didn’t take long to think of several recent conversations I’ve had with my women runner-friends about our bodies and weight. Some usual culprits: “Cute shorts! I could never wear them, with my butt, but they’re cute on you!” “I would cycle more, but you don’t burn as many calories as you do running.” “None for me. I don’t want to cancel out my run.” (This last one, in response to an offer of a home-baked cookie).

Why can't we just eat the cookie without guilt?

When I asked one of the experts I spoke with to weigh in on the idea that all women athletes must suffer from some form of disordered eating, she sighed, and said, “Most Americans do.” If you read the Women’s Running story, you know why this is a terrible thing (you could break your own bones, people!).

So where does this leave us? I’d like to start the conversation by offering a few examples of how I’m changing my own thinking and behaviors as a result of writing the story, and therefore becoming more aware of how dangerous and pervasive disordered eating is:

1. I read Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, which advocates eating based on hunger, and have tried to incorporate its main principles into my eating/training life. Almost everyone I talked to for the story recommended reading it, and I love its emphasis on pleasure, relaxation and slowing down at mealtimes. One mental shift I made as a result: I have completely divorced the idea of burning calories from working out. I don’t care how many calories a given workout will burn; and when I refuel post-workout, I really, truly listen to my body, taking regular breaks to assess whether I’m still hungry, what my body really needs, whether that particular food still tastes good. I’m almost embarrassed to report how revolutionary this is for me—I didn’t even know I was scarfing mindlessly until I made conscious efforts to not do so!

2. I’ve tried to completely eliminate “fat talk,” which we women have a bad habit of bonding over. I’m friends with smart, interesting women, which makes it absurd that many conversations start with: “My thighs are so fat.” “No, they’re not. My thighs are so fat.” How boring! Let’s talk instead about why women feel the need to bond over this—have you ever heard two dudes become better friends by talking about how their jeans fit?

Sometimes, I want a pint of blueberries. Other times, I want a brownie. I'm trying to respect myself and my body in both scenarios.

3. I’ve ordered the sandwich when everyone else is ordering salad. Or I’ve ordered the salad when everyone’s eating fries. Or otherwise eating according to what my body needs, not what my plate looks like compared to other women’s plates (again … I didn’t even know I was doing this until I tuned in).

4. I’m easing back into yoga again to try to maximize my body awareness—i.e., my ability to truly be in touch with what my body needs on any given day, on any given moment. I was one of those kids who did sun salutations next to my mom as a toddler, and I’ve never *not* done yoga. But I’m committing to actually practicing it regularly, dipping into a couple of classes offered for free or cheap through my building and my gym, and ordering a Seane Corn yoga DVD at the suggestion of my yoga-instructor-friend, Lauren. Check out her terrific yoga blog here.

Did you identify any of your own behaviors after reading the story, or even just skimming this blog post? Do you and your runner-friends, or swimmer-friends, engage in fat-talk? Have you had any “light-bulb moments” in which you realized you needed to change such behaviors? Share your thoughts below if so.


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15 responses to “Disordered eating among women runners

  1. That is a really good article, Amy, and I’ve certainly noticed some unhealthy eating behaviors among adult athletes – not unhealthy in terms of eating treats, because that is obviously a life necessity, but unhealthy in terms of outlook and attitude.

    As a youth/adolescent coach in a sport with startling rates of eating disorders (synchronized swimming, with estimates of 80-90% of elite athletes dealing with clinically-diagnosable eating disorders), I really try to take the emphasis off body type or whatnot. If an athlete trains appropriately and is getting the right nutrition, their body will adapt to actually be optimal for the sport.

    On a barely-related note, I burn more calories cycling than running according to my heart rate monitor. Maybe I’m just a really bad runner.

  2. I could write a book long response, but i’ll keep it short. I don’t think the problem just plagues women runners, but is a problem with-in most sports. Espically sports were you may have to wear a leotard/swim suit. I have struggled with my own body image ( I was a gymnast) since I was a young girl and contiue to struggle with it to this day.

  3. katekirk

    I’ve always loved food more than I cared what anyone thought about how I look, and any friends who wanted to engage in the “I’m so fat” talk bored me to tears so I quit hanging out with them. And although I’ve certainly had times in my life where I knew I could lose a few pounds, I apparently have so much ego that I’ve never felt bad about how I looked, even when I hit 165 in college (I am 5’4″).

    I used to think the people with body image/eating issues were the unusual ones — now I think it might be me.

  4. katekirk

    P.S. I’m probably not the first to notice that your piece is followed by one called “Lift to Lose;” women’s health articles often focus on weight loss/appearance first and not a holistic idea of health…which could contribute to the prevalent notion that it’s all about losing losing losing instead of training for a goal or simply being healthy.

    • I did notice that, and have been noticing more and more just how weight-loss focused almost all women’s magazines are. Rarely are they focused on strength or speed or, as you note, a holistic idea of health. (Sigh).

      • That is the #1 reason I just cannot read women’s and fitness magazines anymore. I want actual strengthening and nutrition advice, not how to lose the last 5 pounds or get bikini ready in 4 weeks. Ugh.

  5. Woah…..yeah, I can completely identify with all of this. I am a recovering anorexic (22 years ago) and now a runner. I don’t “starve” myself like I used to, but I certainly have issues. Negative thinking, food rules, freaking out if I can’t get my run or workout in. I count calories, though I tell myself it is so that I eat enough, but silently cheer when I am under the rec. amount.

    I think I was trying to keep myself in denial. I thank you for writing this post and your article. I think I need to head back to my counselor and even visit a dietitian.


  6. It’s so hard to figure out what is normal and what is disordered. I eat what I want when I want and very rarely feel guilty or bad about myself, but I also play the “this is what I ate” game with a friend every day then try to calculate calories. Bonding over “fat” areas is a favorite topic when I get together with my friends. What is wrong with us?!!?

    • *cough* that game is more for fun than bad self-talk *cough cough* 🙂

      but, I really identified with the last part – I hate being the sandwich person in a room full of salads. and more importantly, I think the idea that we need calories to survive has actually been wiped from most of our brains at this point. what to do to fix it? i don’t know. but billions of “fitness” magazines and “healthy living” blogs aren’t necessarily helping.

      • It’s for fun…. but its also probably not what a healthy person does. Right? I wouldn’t know healthy if it beat me over the head with a salad.

  7. Great post and article. Body image is something I struggle with on a daily basis despite the fact that I try to focus my attention on my athletic accomplishments versus what the scale says. It’s a constant battle. Thanks for shedding some light on the subject.

  8. liz

    Great article! Back in my first marathon training cycle I was at a much less healthy place and I would take as few Gus as possible on my runs because I didn’t want to “waste” calories. Now I’m wiser and realize that was ridiculous. I also never engage in fat talk with friends because I’ve come to learn that there is no good reason to do it. If they do it, I listen but try to change the subject.

  9. I have to actually thank you for writing this article. I’ve actually been experiencing the physical side effects of this sort of behavior. Painful fatigue, loss of period, achy joints, gastrointestinal issues. For months I thought it was one thing or another but never did I think it was my eating. This really opened my eyes to how much control I’ve lost over myself all because of an unhealthy relationship with food. I’ve lost weight the wrong way and the right way over the years (kept it off with the latter!) but now it’s become almost an obsession. Your article really opened my eyes to how out of control I’ve gotten which is very hard to even admit. But it’s definitely a game changer for me, a positive one to get me on the right path.

  10. I think part of the problem is the media that’s targeted toward runners. I’ve seen so many posts from coolrunning.com or other sites that talk about weight loss and calorie counting. I really think that people who taking running seriously as a sport need to be less focused on their weight and more focused on getting the nutrition they need to fuel their workouts. Those who simply use running as a way to lose weight– go ahead and count calories. But it does frustrates me when the “running” media talks so frequently about cutting the calories and curbing the cravings.

  11. Great post & article! I think every woman has body image issues. With all my health issues over the past year, I’m trying to just appreciate the lil (and big) things that my body can do while using food to give my body fuel and nutrients to keep doing what its doing. I feel that if I’m making good choices most of the time, I’m not going to waste my time counting calories, carbs, etc. I don’t think I’ve recently passed up a cookie, brownie, or bowl of ice cream because I felt guilty. If I did pass it up, it was probably because I wasn’t hungry or I’ve already had cookies, brownies, or ice cream that day 🙂

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