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Are You Replacing Disordered Eating With Disordered Exercise?

After struggling with her own disordered eating, here's how one physician turned to running to work through emotions in a healthy way.

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Here’s My Story

Frosting, sriracha popcorn and chips with melted cheddar (sugar, salt and fat)—that’s what composed my last food binge which occurred on February 15, 2015, at the age of 42. This is difficult for a pediatrician mother-of-three who has had an extensive background working with teens suffering from eating disorders to admit. Yet, it is a topic that is rampant and hitting our girls at progressively younger ages, and it needs to be talked about.

It had been months—maybe even a year—since my prior food binge, an unhealthy habit that had begun about 30 years before at the age of 12. I vividly remember walking into my parents’ bedroom as a tween and announcing that I was going on a diet, so they shouldn’t make me eat. That first diet of milk, grapes, and chicken breasts—accompanied by stints of going down into our basement to jump-rope—started a cycle of deprivation and binging that lasted for years.

In my twenties, despite regularly volunteering in an inpatient psychiatric hospital in the eating disorders unit (where I saw 70-pound girls fight for their life), I continued my cycle. Later during my residency, I would train under an eating disorder specialist and learn how to recognize the signs of disordered eating in adolescents, yet my own struggle with being on a constant diet and periodically binging continued.

As I started working and having my own children, I continued to always be on a diet, but the frequency of uncontrolled binging decreased. Periodically, the binges would come, like a volcano lying dormant that eventually erupts. Almost 30 years later when I became a runner, I gradually replaced binging through my emotions with running through my emotions, and I believe that I have completely put behind my unhealthy relationship with food while maintaining a healthy relationship with exercise.

Unfortunately, many people with disordered eating either replace it with exercise addiction or suffer from it simultaneously, and we need to bring light to both issues.

A Deeper Look At Eating Disorders

I never had a true eating disorder as defined by a certain set of diagnostic criteria that need to be met. While about 3 percent of women in the U.S. have a true eating disorder—such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder—about 30 percent of women have some disordered eating at some point in their life, like I did. Furthermore, it is estimated that 42 percent of competitive female athletes suffer from disordered eating.

As a matter of fact, eating disorders are the most common condition to co-occur with having an exercise addiction, and replacing disordered eating with deranged exercising is a growing problem. As I myself have learned to deal with stress, exhaustion and sadness by running through my emotions rather than binging through them, I’ve had to learn to navigate making my relationship with running healthier than my relationship with food has ever been. I will admit that I am still absolutely guilty of saying that I earned my carbs or my glass of red wine or my flourless chocolate cake, but that is not really how I feel about food now. I am at a place where I can eat when I want without feeling like I need to earn it, and I’d like to help you recognize if you are replacing disordered eating with disordered exercising.

Are You Replacing Disordered Eating With Disordered Exercise?

First, let’s review some of the parallels between disordered eating and exercise addiction:

  1. Having an excessive preoccupation with food, dieting and counting calories; or spending an excessive amount of time planning workouts and thinking about training plans.
  2. An intense of fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even when underweight.
  3. Undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation.
  4. Avoiding certain social situations in which you may have to eat or in which you may not be able to get in your planned workout.
  5. Stopping menstruation due to weight loss and low body fat percentage.
  6. Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating or with missing planned workouts.
  7. Continuing to restrict eating or purging despite feeling dizzy or weak and refusal to maintain bodyweight at a minimally normal weight; continuing to exercise even when injured.
  8. Always eating or exercising in private, rather than incorporating them into your social life when appropriate.

Now, what are some general guidelines we can follow to make sure that we are exercising with a healthy mindset?

  1. While it is important to plan out your workouts, particularly when training for a race or marathon, things come up and missing a workout should not be a cause of stress. Move on and look forward to the rested legs you’ll have for your next run.
  2. Dissociate eating and exercise. Eat when you’re hungry, and have dessert when you want it, regardless of whether or not you went for a run that day.
  3. Fuel your runs by eating appropriately before and shortly after your run in proportion to the length and intensity of your run. Don’t spend 2 hours working out without eating, saving your “earned calories” for a big binge later that evening.
  4. Don’t miss important social events due to a scheduled run. Again, there is a difference between skipping a girls’ night out because of your long run the next day and missing your best girlfriend’s birthday dinner.
  5. Listen to your body. Are you having pain from muscle soreness or pain from injury? Don’t exercise through injury.
  6. Be okay with changing up your workout plan. If an opportunity comes up to go for a hike with friends, then be okay with skipping your planned HIIT workout or gym session and take the hike.
  7. Ditch your Garmin or GPS watch and run “free” some days. If you need to know the exact duration, distance, pace and calories burned for every run, then you may have a problem.
  8. Take a rest day and enjoy it. If the thought of a scheduled rest day brings you anxiety rather than being something to look forward to, consider seeking professional help.

In a few months, it will be two years since I’ve had a food binge. I rarely have the urge to binge now because running has become my form of meditation that helps me handle stress and fatigue. I’ve also learned to listen to my body when it comes to exercise, pushing harder when my body craves it and taking an unscheduled rest day when I can feel that my body needs it. If you are struggling with disordered eating and/or exercise addiction, remember that you are not alone. Seek help and you too can have a healthy relationship with food, with physical activity, and with yourself.

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