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Sports Dietician and author Nancy Clark investigates the dangers of running with an eating disorder
If you are a runner who struggles with losing those last few pounds, take note. Weight issues may have little to do with body fat and more to do with psychological feelings of “I'm not good enough.”
An eating disorder distracts the runner from the feelings that come with being “not good enough.” When you are thinking about whether or not to eat, and how much to exercise, you are not thinking about feeling imperfect or inadequate. Unfortunately, using food to distract from those feelings can end up hurting your performance.
At a conference in Boston organized by the Multiservice Eating Disorders Association (MEDA MEDAinc.org), there was food for thought for all athletes who struggle with finding the right balance of food, weight, and exercise. Check out the website for helpful resources for teammates, friends and family members, as well as for runners with anorexia, bulimia, and food obsessions.
Food for thought
Do people recover?
Yes, usually with help from a therapist, registered dietitian (RD), and medical team. Some runners get tired of the eating disorder and learn to accept their perceived body flaws. Others get scared when they vomit blood. Some find hope in a new personal relationship (“Maybe I am good enough to be loved!”) or choose to eat better so they can get pregnant.
One pathway for recovery is to see the eating disorder as being just one part of you. It is the part that tries to protect your other parts that don't like feeling lonely, rejected, or imperfect. For example, perhaps you had traumatic experiences in middle school. Your eating disordered part can distract and numb feelings of pain, shame, and fear. It keeps you feeling more in control of life.
Try talking to your eating disorder and ask, “Please tell me why you are here? What are you trying to do for me?” The ED part might answer “I'm trying to distract you and protect you from painful feelings – you know, the shame you felt as a kid at school...” Yet, we all know that starving one’s body does not solve any problems. Hence, a probing question is, “How effective on a scale of one to 10 (with 10 being 100 per cent effective) is the eating disorder in making you happy in your core?”
Most runners with eating disorders are miserable. Using a model of recovery such as Internal Family Systems (www.selfleadership.org), runners can discover their core that is centered, competent, secure, self-assured, relaxed, and able to both listen to and respond to feedback. These core values can displace the eating disordered voices and lead to a happier, healthier life and improved performance. Is it time for you to stop struggling and start living and performing better?
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners and marathoners offer additional information on resolving weight issues. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also sportsnutritionworkshop.com.
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I suffered with an eating disorder for over 15 years. Luckily for me and with help I am recovered. I don't believe that the eating disorder ever goes away completely but you learn ways of dealing with it. Although I eat normally and have been fine for many years now I still have a distorted body image which I'm not sure will ever completely go away. I'm extremely lucky to have got the help and support i needed and love my life now.
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