FAQ: Questions about Eating Disorders and Runners

An eating disorder is a persistent failure to eat enough, alter the way food is eaten (or not eaten), or resist impulses to remove calories from the body.

There are many types of eating disorders, but for this article, we will talk about two: anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Additionally, we will discuss what causes these disorders and how runners can prevent them.

Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and Bulimia Nervosa (BN) have both been around for years, but the media and society at large didn’t start paying attention until the 80s. The prevalence of these disorders increased due to fear–anorexia occurs mostly in teenage girls, while bulimia is more prevalent in young adults. These disorders are called self-starvation disorders because of the desire to be extremely thin. The other terms for anorexia are eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) and eating disorder, because bulimia does not specifically cause weight loss.

AN is a mental health disorder in which girls who are younger than 12 is about 1 out of 2,000. It is the most severe type of eating disorder and there have been only 3 documented cases that have lasted beyond 20 years (average lifespan of a normal person).

The eating behaviors of anorexics are extreme. Anorexics tend to eat as little as 500 calories per day, but this is not a healthy amount of calories. The heart rate also slows down, but the brain is still sending signals to the body about being hungry. This causes them to feel cold and weak, symptoms that bring them closer to death. They also experience depression, irritability and may even experience hallucinations.

AN is a disease, and can be treated with medication. Treatment goal is to get the person to eat a healthy amount of food so that metabolically they do not have to rely on food as a source of energy.

BN, on the other hand, happens much more commonly than anorexia. There have been at least two documented cases of bulimia nervosa lasting longer than 20 years (it has recently been found to be 50% hereditary).

Main cause of BN is eating episodes where the individual is binge eating while purging (vomiting after eating) in an attempt to compensate for the large amount of calories consumed. Binge eating is defined as consuming more than 800 calories in a short period of time.

The symptoms that people experience who have BN are similar to AN–cold, weak and depressed and with regular vomiting. They may also develop a “thinner” mentality where they use thin clothing to make them feel thinner than they are.null

Can you run with an eating disorder?

Yes. There is a very small percentage of runners who suffer from an eating disorder. One way to minimize the chances that it will affect your running is to share what you eat and make sure you’re getting enough calories. Since some people have aversions to certain foods, it’s best to talk about your preferences and check in with your doctor before starting any new diet plan.null

Reasons Why Runners Are More Vulnerable to Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are on the rise in runners because our lifestyle has changed. On the contrary, eating disorders were around long before the advent of modern running. And the causes of eating disorders in runners differ from those of people who don’t exercise.

Other therapists are also finding that runners with eating disorders often have very low self-esteem, and this can be “good” for the program. I meet many people with eating disorders who tell me they love to run because it makes them feel strong and in control.

Runners are accustomed to not eating and exercising on a regular basis. We rarely sit or eat during marathon training, and our daily caloric intake is based off of how well we do in the race. This causes many runners to eat very little or no food at all, which can be very difficult for those without proper nutrition.

It’s important that runners with eating disorders need professional help because it could result in physical injury, illness, chronic fatigue syndrome, or even death if left untreated.

“Patients with eating disorders are eight to twenty times more at risk of having a major illness or injury because of poor eating habits,” says Wendy Brooks, an eating disorder specialist and the director of the R.D. Lyle Center for Diabetes Health and Wellness in Wake Forest, North Carolina. “When you don’t eat the proper foods or have little energy to exercise, you’re putting your body at great risk.

Causes of Eating Disorders in Runners

Eating disorders are on the rise in runners because our lifestyle has changed. On the contrary, eating disorders were around long before the advent of modern running. And the causes of eating disorders in runners differ from those of people who don’t exercise.

“Eating disorders are much more common in women than men,” says Brooks. “Eating disorders are also more common in teenage girls than boys, and females tend to develop anorexia at an earlier age when they have unrealistic expectations about their body image and weight.
Many runners struggle with eating disorders because of the unrealistic expectations of the runner’s body created by people in the media and in running clubs.

“Some runners develop certain beliefs about their weight,” Brooks says. “They may get started on a diet that becomes an eating disorder. They can become so preoccupied with their weight that it interferes with their daily functioning in school or work.” Runners also have less time for socializing than they did years ago, when they are away from home for long periods at a time for training.

The Fundamentals of Recovery for Runners with Eating Disorders

Eating disorders plague many runners, but they can be successfully treated. Recovery is a two-step process. The first step is to stop the behaviors that are causing the eating disorder and address any underlying issues that might be contributing such as low self esteem or body dysmorphia. The second step is to regain weight and get back to running while following a healthy diet plan.

The first step is not always easy for an athlete who depends on their performance for self esteem and has an unrelenting desire to achieve perfection in everything they do. However, it’s essential if you want recovery from your eating disorder so you can reach your fitness goals again and resume training without fear of injury or relapse due to low weight and fueling problems.

The second step is also difficult, but possible with careful planning and support from friends and family. Once you have regained your desired weight, the next step is to follow a healthy diet plan so your recovery doesn’t stall as it did before when you were restricting calories or exercising excessively.

There is no single method of treatment for an eating disorder because the disorders affect people differently. The doctors and medical professionals at the Eating Disorder Association of Canada have identified common treatments to be found throughout the world. The following is a list of treatment options for eating disorders.

Individual Therapy/Couples Counseling
Group Therapy/Self-Help Group Meetings
Family Therapy/Family Support Groups
School Counseling or School Based Treatment Programs (Middle or High School)

Make sure you meet doctors, counselors or therapists in your area. Call your state’s patient protection program to find out if there is a health insurance company that will cover counseling.

How do you know if you have an eating disorder?

If you feel like you are constantly hungry and unable to control your eating, it could be because you’re not getting enough nutrients. If this sounds like the case for you, visit your healthcare provider to find out more about what the causes of these symptoms could be.

Is running a problem for someone with an eating disorder?

Some injuries may not allow for running, but if you are able to, you should be able to exercise for around 30-60 minutes. If you’re farther than this or feel extra tired when you exercise with some depressive thoughts or fears, it’s best to see a doctor about what the underlying cause is.

Can runners with eating disorders train during recovery?

Yes. Just be sure to read up on the signs of an eating disorder, as mentioned in question two. If you do have a concern about your mental health, it’s best to talk it over with a friend who understands and help you figure out which kind of treatment might work for you.

How long will it take to recover from an eating disorder?

It can take anywhere from 3-10 years for someone to recover from an eating disorder, depending on the severity of the disorder.

If I exercise, will that help my eating disorder?

Exercising can help with your eating disorder symptoms. But it’s important to know that it’s not going to completely fix them. If you’re concerned about your mental health, talk to your healthcare provider about what kind of treatment would be best for you.

What are signs that someone might have a low self esteem or body dysmorphia?

The symptoms of low self-esteem or body dysmorphia may include feelings of inadequacy, low self-confidence, signs of depression and detachment. These symptoms may be heightened during periods of stress or when a person has had an argument with someone close to them. If you’re concerned about your mental health, it’s best to talk it over with a friend who understands and help you figure out which kind of treatment would work for you.