Oct 2022 Issue | Running on Empty: Eating Disorders Among Athletes

By Nanaz Khosrowshahi

Running is a healthy way to lose weight and stay in shape, but it also can be a way to hide signs and symptoms of anorexia or bulimia. We know that eating disorders cross the lines of socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, gender, and race. And these disorders also appear among those we might consider super-healthy like athletes and runners. It is easy to miss the signs of an eating disorder when a friend or family member seems active and fit.

As a runner and recovering anorexic, I know firsthand how to hide the disorder. Before my recovery, I was always bundling up-with thick knee socks—regardless of the weather. I felt the weight of the headband on my head and heard my teeth chatter louder than the birds chirping during my early morning runs. I was always fighting fatigue, fainting, and weakness. I drank extra water just to silence the hunger rumblings as I skipped the post-run snack. I trained my brain to withhold food and that the normal rules of healthy eating do not apply to me.

Eventually, my body could not take it anymore. Wasting away was wearing away at me mentally and emotionally. But I was scared of regaining weight that I had lost through dangerous dieting, so I reintroduced small amounts of food slowly during meals, reminding myself that my illogical adolescent plan for perfecting my physique was unrealistic in the long term. As I gained weight gradually in  my twenties, I felt that I could proudly say I had beaten the illness after a decade-long battle.

Rachael Steil shares her experience in her book Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It. As a cross country and track runner, she adopted a raw food diet, hoping it would help her run faster and be more energized. Eventually, she developed anorexia and started binge eating. Rachael worried about discussing her eating disorder with her coach, but her coach shared that Rachael was more than just her weight and that she was capable of achieving more with a healthier body. Rachel needed to remember she was also more than just a runner; she was a trustworthy and good person who looked out for others. So, in addition to her book, she founded Running in Silence, a nonprofit dedicated to helping athletes feel comfortable talking about eating disorders and teaching coaches how to work with athletes struggling with body image issues.

Is running the only sport that can hide an eating disorder? Truthfully, it can happen in any sport. A forthcoming documentary Why Don’t You Lose Five Pounds? features interviews with Olympians, and high school and college athletes in football, ice skating, and other sports. Olympic ice skater and executive producer Nancy Kerrigan shares stories from athletes, coaches, and ballerinas on the pressures of competing and performing with an eating disorder. The film spotlights the Victory Program at McCallum Place, the only 24-hour, residential and outpatient eating disorder program just for athletes. Fitness magazines and exercise equipment are discouraged while journals, books, and art supplies are encouraged.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, be sure to talk to a doctor or mental health care professional. You can get help from the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline. Here are some other self-care tips:

  • Break up with social media and fashion magazines for a period of time. Block websites that actually promote eating disorders.
  • Realize you are not alone and read inspirational stories of others who have overcome this illness.
  • Engage in hobbies, volunteering, or other activities.
  • Avoid strict dieting, obsession with the number on the scale, and staring into the mirror.
  • Create a care team with a nutritionist, physician, and therapist.
  • Maintain a journal of your thoughts and feelings, and monitor what triggers unhealthy behaviors.

There are times when a comment can send someone with an eating disorder into a tailspin. Here are some tips on how to help someone battling an eating disorder:

  • Reduce anxiety during meals by avoiding criticism on their food decisions.
  • Try to explore social activities that are not based on eating, like visiting restaurants or picnics. Enjoy a lecture at the library or an arts and crafts class together.
  • Encourage them to seek help with a therapist that specializes in eating disorders, offering help in researching one or finding resources.
  • Be patient and do not make assumption that it is about body image only.

The Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) contains a page long list of sample phrases to avoid or change when speaking to student athletes. Running in Silence offers additional resources for coaches and parents.

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