The Female Athlete Triad, part 2: The Right Stuff
(Content notice: disordered eating.)
My dietician is punching away at a calculator, as I watch her with the trepidation I might feel watching an airline employee attempting to find me a new flight in a snowstorm. “So, you’re not eating enough to begin with, and then a third of your calories are coming from alcohol or chocolate,” she says with more fascination than disapproval.
She hands me a sheet labeled Healthy Meal Planning. There is no wine on it, but I’m pretty sure it says six CUPS of vegetables per day. I want to take a nap.
“Did you know that your metabolism can slow up to 40 percent when you restrict calories?”
Well, yes, I’m learning that there are many things I’ve been doing wrong; I’m four weeks into recovery from a stress fracture in my hip and learning that my poor nutrition, diet-focused approach to exercise, and lifestyle are running the risk of causing me severe long-term health problems.
I’ve always been the sort of person who would come home from a 10-mile run and have shower beer and maybe a few cookies. Protein? Everything you read about vegetarians (I’ve been one most of my life) says don’t worry about it, so I didn’t. I used exercise as an excuse to eat all the things I feel guilty about, as well as a way to self-medicate my severe ADD (more on that in a future post), and I’m realizing that it’s become a force in my life wielding power beyond its own good.
With the guidance of a registered dietician and my sports medicine doc, and the support of some really helpful sources online which I’ll share as they come up, I’m changing my approach to exercise and nutrition completely. Here are some of the things I’ve learned this month.
You can’t build muscle and fitness running on the bare minimum.
Turns out restricting your calories for fear of gaining weight and then trying to build fitness is like trying to make an omelette without any eggs and then wondering why it’s not getting fluffy. Muscles and bones build from the nutrients in a healthy diet, and simply not getting enough of them is going to get you nowhere. Getting enough protein is particularly important (Note: while I do think most of the vegetarian/vegan literature I’ve read is too dismissive of the importance of protein, focusing on your basic survival needs rather than an active person’s optimal needs, it is certainly possible to achieve adequate protein intake on a plant-based diet. You just need to be more vigilant and, typically, eat a bit more.) Case in point: I’ve been exercising since I was 15 while restricting calories and slacking on nutrients, and haven’t progressed in speed or strength with any significance. I’ll try not to get so depressed about that statement that I can’t finish this post. Amber Rogers, founder of GoKaleo, has inspired me a great deal with her recovery and fitness journey.
You can’t recover properly from an injury while dieting.
Again, the body has to use something besides duct tape to repair itself. It’s common among athletes, especially those who already engage in disordered eating, to diet during an injury, terrified that they’ll “blow up” if they don’t. That’s the worst thing you can do. True, your body doesn’t need the number of calories it did when you were running 50 miles a week, but you need more than your baseline amount to repair tissue and prevent your body from clutching onto fat to keep you alive. This is especially challenging because the transition from a high to a low activity level can flatline an athlete’s appetite, and athletes who have disordered eating might see this as a helpful way to lose weight rather than a problem. I’ve been using my dietician’s intake recommendations, which dovetail pretty perfectly with this very useful and detailed calculator that readers may find helpful. For some people, counting calories is more triggering than helpful, so I’m not getting into a lot of numbers in this post, but I’ve found it crucial to track my calories, protein, and calcium to make sure I’m getting enough.
Eating disorders don’t go away any more than anxiety or depression goes away. They can go into remission.
With good treatment, they can be managed. But just because I received good treatment once in my life doesn’t mean I can count on never dealing with related issues again. My eating during marathon training has been disordered, and I need to own that and be vigilant about taking care of myself for life.
If you restrict food groups and you’re an athlete, you need to care more about nutrition––not less.
When you’ve gone through a period in life of severe restriction, as I did, and spent a large portion of the rest of it engaging in mild restriction (say, avoiding certain food groups or thinking of certain foods as “bad,”) it’s easy to treat large amounts of exercise as an inoculation against having to worry about dietary needs. If you’re wondering how to tell that food has become so far removed from a fuel source in your mind that it has lost all semblance of actual nutritional function and is now purely an emotional maelstrom of anxiety and rebellion, one good sign is that you run 20 miles and recover by drinking a six-pack of beer and eating a loaf of spicy cheese bread you’ve had locked up in your freezer for a month. Not saying I’ve ever done this. Ahem.
I’d like to conclude with an admission. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my health is my own responsibility––health is about fitness, adequate nutrition, energy levels, and overall sense of well-being, and I’ll no longer rely solely on large amounts of exercise or a certain diet to pick up the slack for my poor habits.
I also have a few words for the fitness industry, and I’ll choose them very carefully.
I used to think nothing of “LOSE WEIGHT NOW!” headlines on the cover of Runners’ World. I used to take for granted that every model for a Fitspiration meme or stock photo or sports medicine brochure at the doctors’ office was thin. I used to congratulate my friends on significant, fast weight loss while training for marathons, without even a thought to asking about running-related goals.
To be clear: weight loss in and of itself is not inherently a bad thing. Sometimes it’s a great thing. But at some point, the fitness industry and the diet industry got together and decided to make fitness all about weight loss. And I’m going to pick on running here, because that’s my sport: runners, let’s cut it out. I don’t want to hear it about how “they’re letting anyone into marathons” these days. I could go for a few running magazine covers that don’t scream “DIET!” and include an 1,800-calorie weight loss plan for your next race training season––and I won’t be buying the ones that do anymore. Let’s stop acting like wanting to lose weight is a natural extension of fitness, and recognize that while there is a positive, safe way to move toward your healthiest size while gaining strength and fitness (GoKaleo is all about this), treating exercise as a diet in motion is not that way.
Ask your friends how their running (or biking or rock climbing or Zumba) is going. Ask if they feel better, if they’ve gotten stronger, if they’ve made new goals since they began. And when they report successes, exude as much happiness for them as you would if they’d said they lost ten pounds. In short, instead of focusing on just one way to measure “results,” let’s ask better questions. We may be surprised at the answers.