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Nutrition Nerd: Where is the Love (for ourselves)?- Disordered Eating and Body Dissatisfaction

Posted Feb 02 2012 9:18am

Since the holiday of love, Valentine’s Day falls in February I felt this month would be an appropriate one to discuss the issue of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in runners. Chances are we can all list off a variety of people and things in our lives that we love, such as our spouse/significant other, family, pets, job, running, etc. However, when faced with the question of what do we love about ourselves, the list may very short or nonexistent. If the question were changed and we were asked what we want to change about ourselves, well generally that can bring out a whole host of answers. “I want to slim down“, “I want my arms to be more defined“, “I want my legs to be leaner“, and so on.

For athletes, particularly those in “lean-build” sports such as running, it is often believed that a decrease in body weight, size, and/or fat mass will result in improved performance. Dissatisfaction with one’s current body and strong desires to achieve an ideal weight can lead to restriction of foods (or certain types of foods), sub-clinical binging and purging, and excessive exercise. While these characteristics alone are not considered to be a full-blown eating disorder, these disordered eating patterns can increase the likelihood of future development of a clinically diagnosed eating disorder and negatively influence health and athletic performance.

Females and Disordered Eating: Generally, more females are affected by disordered eating and eating disorders than males; and several studies have indicated that female athletes are more susceptible than females who are not athletes. Calorie restriction is 1 part of the “ female athlete triad “  which can lead to the other 2 parts: bone loss/osteoporosis and amenorrhea/menstrual disturbances. The conditions associated with the triad occur along a continuum of severity. All 3 points are related to each other and signs of 1 (i.e. – menstrual disturbances) typically indicate that the other 2 points (i.e.- bone loss and caloric restriction) are present as well. If you or someone you know shows signs of the triad, it is important that you seek (or help them to seek) treatment from a health care provider.

Males and Disordered Eating: Previously understudied and now receiving more attention is that fact that males, particularly athletes, engage in disordered eating habits as well. Typically for males, the desire is to become “leaner” (i.e. – lower body fat percentage) and perhaps more muscular instead of the desire for thinness typically present in females. While no “male athlete triad” exists, if chronic energy deficit and/or extreme exercise persists or becomes too severe men are also at risk of developing full-blown clinical eating disorders.

What to Do If You Or Someone You Know is Dealing with Body Dissatisfaction and/or Disordered Eating: What steps you should take really depend upon the severity. For full-blown eating disorders, professional help is needed. However, the issue of what to do with less severe disordered eating / body dissatisfaction does not have a single right or wrong answer. For some, it may be as simple as taking time to develop a better body image (check out this document for ideas). For others it may mean meeting with a Registered Dietitian who can help you determine an ideal weight and create a healthful diet to help you achieve it (find one here ). Since we are approaching Valentine’s Day I want you all to make a list of things you love about yourself – that includes what you love about your body. Then when you are faced with the “I wish I were ______” thoughts you can turn to this list and remind yourself of all the positives aspects about your body. To give you some examples, here are two things I have written down that I love about myself/my body: “I love that my arms/back are strong enough that I can do pull-ups”. “I love that my body can handle a full day of activity that can include running, skiing, and lifting all in a 24 hour period”. I also want you each to give your body a Valentine’s Day present. Some gift ideas to show yourself some love include: a professional massage, bags of ice so you can create your own ice bath at home, or a new cookbook so that you create nourishing, healthy meals to fuel your running lifestyle.

For a list of resources for learning more about disordered eating (and eating disorders) and treatment providers, click here .

What do you love about your body? What strategies do you use to cope with the little voice in your head that can pop up and tell you are not thin enough, muscular enough, etc? What present will you give yourself this Valentine’s Day?


(Tanya is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and is pursuing her PhD in Nutrition and Exercise Science at Virginia Tech. After graduating with her Bachelor’s in Dietetics, Tanya completed an American Dietetic Association (ADA) approved Dietetic Internship through the University of Houston. She has completed many road races from 5k to 25k. Follow her on Twitter @nutritionnerd and at her personal blog Dine, Dash & Deadlift .)

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