(Our) Food is Fucked

The Positive Split — Issue 30

“She actually eats on Friday so that way she can race on Saturday.”

A prerace meal in production

I was shocked by the matter-of-fact delivery of this disturbing statement. A girl on our team had massively disordered eating and teammates understood.

I’d asked why it seemed like this girl could barely keep up on workout days but then went ahead of the pack on Race Day. Or at least recently. She’d been injured last season. And she’d go on to be injured again. But for right then her rollercoaster of food consumption, days without many calories followed by spikes of ingestion, was working, to everyone’s silent concern.

Decades later that answer still hangs in my memory as one of the first times someone openly acknowledged an eating disorder to me.

Last week marked a new annual tradition, “Eating Disorder Awareness Week,” filled with posts from athletes openly and honestly admitting their status along the difficult journey, which is refreshing.

I grew up in an era where “Eating Disorder” was a disparaging phrase whispered about others as they passed by struggling in isolation. It was a label. A stigmatized status. Something to be avoided but rarely discussed.

Not only did we not talk about extreme eating habits, but we were also scolded for remarking on other’s body changes. Athletes would appear on starting lines, their jerseys hanging loosely from their thin frames, and it was taboo to talk about. Of course, people still did. Comments were made. But it stayed at the judging surface level, “She has a problem,” was common. “He eats weird,” on occasion. But for my memory, that’s mostly where it stopped. I don’t recall an open conversation of how to get help. Because most of us had little idea what could be done about it.

What use is a diagnosis if the solution is a mystery? And so it continued on mostly unacknowledged.

What also continued was the glorification of thin bodies in stride.

After all, it was undeniable, even a novice could view the physical similarities between medalists on their stand. And while each year seemed to present a new class of outstanding svelte athletes emerging victorious, it was difficult to know by what means their bodies arrived at that form.

Were the best simply gifted with Olympic level ratio of strength to weight or was it arrived at by an eating disorder? Or both? And whatever happened to last year’s thin champion? It’s nearly impossible to know the entirety of what’s going on for them during meal times or how they felt about themselves and food at other times.

This is all too much for the bystander to understand. It’s only those closest to an athlete who can both inquire and also support. And in that era, it felt like people barely knew what questions to ask, let alone what solutions to offer.

As endurance athletes, we have a special relationship with “healthy” eating. Athletes intuitively understand the simple ratio of power divided by mass. Whether they know the science or not, most can intuit that increasing the first or decreasing the second equals more efficient movement. The question that novice athletes rarely know to ask is at what cost do those improvements come?

It was also while in college that I first heard those words flipped, from “Eating Disorder” to “Disordered Eating.” This small change opened up a whole spectrum of new meaning. Instead of a label only indicating an extreme condition, it offered a range of consumption behaviors spanning two polar opposite disordered extremes. When reframed from a static label to an inclusive condition it allowed me to see the stark reality of the food landscape surrounding me, which was toxic.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s I was immersed in the rise of low-fat and non-fat. Microwaved and Jumbo-sized. I was exposed to more fast foods, snack foods, and packaged foods than any generation before, but it was becoming increasingly clear to anyone paying attention that the rise of these manufactured nutrients, available in an instant and shelf-stable for ages, was as dangerous as it was convenient. It turned out there were trade-offs for all the tastiness.

As athletes in America, we were learning that there was danger at either extreme and that the slope toward each was slippery. In my 20s, I knew men who were noticing that their metabolism could no longer keep pace with their as-much-as-possible meal routine, as well as men who seemed to mentally note each calorie and took pride in having avoided dessert indefinitely.

All the while the train of American fad diets continued to run right on schedule.

From the South Beach to Atkins.

Slow Carb to No Carb.

Intermittent Fasting to Bio-Hacking.

Each extreme solution intended to provide their disciples a rallying cry and philosophy to fight back and survive within this toxic food environment.

Bystanders might look upon endurance champions as “emaciated,” but those athletes would likely look back in judgment of a bulging waistline. As an athlete in America, I was surrounded by overlapping worlds of over and under eating in which there was more than enough judgment to go around.

And somehow I have continued to walk this line, somewhere within the middle ground of relative dietary safety, feeling lucky the entire time. Enough people close to me have succumbed to both extremes that I’ve realized I no more get to choose my height or shoe size than select my personal path through this poisonous food culture. I’ve witnessed the pernicious effect of disordered eating in both forms, and I’ve seen how physically and psychologically difficult it is to alter diet day-to-day, even when the path that you’re on could lead to death.

Restricted eating is a disease. So is the opposite, but it’s too simple to label one “lazy” and the other “psycho.” The good news is that athletes finally feel empowered to name and identify early warning signs and treatments for restricted eating, and there are programs and solutions aiming to change the course of the broken food system.

But both demand more awareness, less judgment, and more options for those seeking better foods.

As a student, I was measured in blunt BMI terms and instructed to live within an elaborate food pyramid, but I wasn’t warned that simply learning to eat in America would be a fight. I wasn’t alerted to the onslaught that I would encounter from both disordered directions or pointed to where to turn when I had questions.

My hope is that the rising generation of runners don’t get tripped up by the same series of pitfalls because they have exposure to warnings, are provided tools, and supported by a cast of role models.

One success story does cling to my college memory. Of an underclass boy on our team who piled on mileage while carefully portioning minimal calories until he reached a state of undeniable danger. One day at lunch he simply broke down in tears, luckily his teammates were with him. Unsure of what to do, but positive he needed support, they walked with him to the coach’s office and together sought medical attention. He went on to receive help, complete college and medical school, all while transforming his skeletal frame into bulking muscular strength. I doubt his relationship with food has become simple, but it seemed to find a more positive expression.

It’s a reminder that even if you’re not currently fighting an inner demon or struggling to course-correct a journey gone astray, we can each reach a place where we need help. It’s important to acknowledge when a change must be made and commendable to look to others for support.

If I’ve learned anything in my experiences with friends and family dealing with mental, emotional, or substance abuse issues it’s to come to them with grace, attempt to acknowledge their current journey, reassure them that you are there to help not judge, and repeat that you will be there with them as they tackle the oblique task of making new sense of their one life.

Links and resources:

Maybe I’m old school, but I was nervous to even write this piece because I don’t have the answers.

But this past week showed me that awareness and discussion of the topic are an important step in changing the atmosphere and helping people.

If you have experience with helping yourself or others with disordered eating and think it’s something others could benefit from I’d be happy to share lessons and stories in a future issue of this newsletter.

We could share anonymously if that’s more comfortable.

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2:19 Marathoner. Writer about running.