Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Disordered Eating

A recent article by David Roche in Trail Runner Magazine highlights an issue that is all too often ignored: male athletes and disordered eating. In the spirit of being open, I wanted to take a moment to share my history with disordered eating, which, like the author's, would most appropriately be described as "subclinical".

A combination of running and wrestling in high school kick-started a history of disordered eating for me. I was "little" but somewhat muscular when I joined the wrestling team as a sophomore. My natural weight in the 115-120lb range was too low for the 112lb weight class so I forced myself all the way down to 103. I have very distinct memories of this endeavor: sweatsuits and layers upon layers of sweat-saturated clothes, measuring out meals of plain yogurt by the 1/2cup, eating a muffin top for breakfast and being genuinely excited at the prospect of getting to eat the rest of the muffin for dinner. The race to lose nearly 15% of my body weight, and then maintain, was exhausting; but I also found the required focus and determination to be rewarding in its own twisted way.

After 2 years of wrestling, my weight returned to normal, but a seed was planted in my brain. That seed has produced a disordered way of thinking that grows and withers from time to time, but is never truly eradicated. Scales, calorie-counting, estimating calories expended through exercise, hyper-awareness of a singular number that magically defines my health and happiness, looking in the mirror and seeing only fat deposits ... it all started becoming a common part of my daily life.

By college I had grown a little, and so my natural weight ranged from roughly 123 to 130. I'm not sure how or why exactly it began, but I started judiciously logging my macronutrients in a spreadsheet. And then came absurdity. I convinced myself that healthy eating meant 1200 calories a day. Sometimes I was over, but that was always the goal. The quality of the food was generally unimportant. And occasionally, "for fun", I'd try to go stretches where I'd consume less than 10g of fat per day (a serving of peanut butter is around 16g). This was all while going to the gym routinely -- lifting weights, running, etc. Unsurprisingly, during this period I never got stronger or faster.

I examined myself in the mirror: "I don't look skinny", "my ribs should be more prominent". I'd hit the stationary bike at the rec center, head down in silent focus, trying to burn off the calories I'd taken in. In a couple of months I was back down to the low-110s. After running a couple marathons -- without proper training -- I distinctly remember thinking "I could be faster if I were 107" ... never mind the fact that with adherence to a proper training program I could've been 30lbs overweight and still performed better. And why 107?! I was definitely on course for clinical disordered eating, and occasionally flashed signs of exercise bulimia.

Magically, the head-on collision was avoided. But the troubling thing about it all is that I have no idea how I changed course. There's nothing specific that happened to keep me from going down the rabbit hole. No epiphany, nothing. Over the course of a couple months I just stopped worrying about weighing less.

... Except, that's not really the end of it, because it never really goes away. To this day, nearly two decades after I was measuring out 1/2cups of yogurt, I still think about my weight and the calorie counts of the food I eat on a daily basis. All. Day. Long. Every serving of food I consume, I'm secretly adding up how much it costs, and whether or not I deserve it. I'm looking in the mirror and, like David Roche, "I'm pretty sure I see something different than what other people see."

By all accounts, I'm healthy and fit. I average 200+ miles of running every month. And there's not a doctor in the world who'd say I was overweight. And yet, nearly every day I think, I wish, I know that I could afford to lose, at the very least, just a few more pounds. I'm comfortably around 135 to 140 now, and I find my body tends to throw out red flags when I drift much below that ... but in college I was the same height and 10lbs lighter ... and in high school I was 20lbs lighter and could run the 800m faster than I can now ... and Eliud Kipchoge is 5'6" and 115lbs and he's the world's greatest marathoner ... so I should definitely go on a diet and lose at least 10lbs right now!

It's all bullshit. Somehow, my mind is able to recognize this disordered logic, and that keeps real problems at bay. For that, I'm lucky, and grateful. I hope to go on, for the remainder of my life, maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle and supporting myself with good eating habits (and the occasional cookie dough splurges). But I know, too, that there will always be guilt, the feelings of inadequacy, and quick-fire caloric math before, during, and after nearly every ounce of food I consume.

Most days it's not a big deal. Other days it can feel a bit exhausting. But there are plenty of other folks out there dealing with much, much worse. Hopefully more open discussions about disordered eating can remove the stigma, let others know that they're not alone, and that it's okay to seek out help.