I straddle two worlds in my professional life. On one side, I specialize in manipulating and challenging bodies as a personal trainer and athlete - helping people move better and farther. On the other, I help people heal their relationship with food and bodies- calming internal criticisms and rigid food/movement beliefs to find a place of balanced living.
One might argue these worlds don't blend. Admittedly, sometimes I feel at odds with myself. Athletes and fitness buffs are bombarded with messages to ignore their bodies - challenge themselves, go beyond their comfort, and crush their bodies. While my eating disorder world argues movement should only be reserved for joy. But can their be joy in athletics? Or is it just a place of punitive manipulation?
I believe these worlds can co-exist for any body, so long as the person is aware of their relationship to sport, fueling, and their body. It's not as simple as saying movement is "ok" for someone who doesn't identify as disordered and vice versa. In our "fit-centric" world, it's all too easy for someone to pass off their behaviors as a quest for fitness/health when in reality they're deeply rooted in anxiety, shame, and self loathing.
Training means setting a movement specific goal (eg, balance, endurance, strength) and identifying an effective, balanced, ever changing program to achieve it. It's about listening to the body and recognizing when and how to respect ability. Exercise on the other hand is often about changing the size and shape of the body. It's often grueling and punishing and about doing things "to" the body, instead of "with" the body.
Misconceptions about eating disorders...
Some argue that athletes are incapable of disorder because they're doing it for sport while others believe that all athletes are disordered because what they do seems excessive and involves manipulating their bodies.
Recently an Olympic athlete posted a picture of herself with her newborn son on Instagram. Her arms were small..."grotesque" claimed some. Over 500 comments from various followers argued about her condition based upon that 1 image and demonstrated the naivete so much of the world holds about what it means to have an eating disorder:
The arguments struck me because you can't see an eating disorder, just like you can't see any other mental health disorder such as schizophrenia. Both are a disease. Sure some behaviors are visible, and sometimes the physical presentation can be extreme - but not always. The emotions and thoughts that drive them are hidden.
No one is immune from disordered eating. I work with affluent, poor, ivy league professors, 8th grade grads, high level athletes, couch potatoes, white, black, Indian, Brazilian, American, men, women, children, 75 yr old, and 6 yr old people. They come in all shapes and sizes with various degrees of anxiety about their body and relationship to food.
Eating disorders happen to people.
Society rewards athletes...
So getting back to my point, how do you unpack someone's relationship to food? With athletes it's tricky. Society reveres and rewards their "discipline" around food and exercise. Their physical presentation appears "healthy" according to society. But remember, it's about the behaviors that live under the surface.
Many disordered individuals take refuge in athletics - it masks their disordered behaviors and gives them a reason to restrict food and intensify workouts. Sometimes their physical appearance changes - they gain muscle and size making them appear less cachectic. But changes in physical appearance do not indicate recovery. They've replaced one disorder for another, but the intense emotions, fears, and thoughts continue to drive them.
Misery is not the hallmark of disordered...
There are many reasons why we eat and move. Some people claim, "but I really enjoy running." Others cite, "But I like salad!" Let me be clear - the act of running and eating salad does not mean you're disordered. However, it's possible to like our behaviors...and even to rely on them for comfort and joy. But sometimes there are additional thoughts/beliefs alongside the rationale.
For example, you may love the act of running - the mental clarity, fresh air, and endorphin rush. But perhaps there's also fear that if you do NOT run, your body will change...or you aren't allowed to eat...or you aren't allowed to eat certain foods...or you'll feel terrible about yourself...or you feel you have to make up for missing the run.
Similarly with salads. Certainly there are times you may prefer a salad over a burger - salads can be refreshing and delicious. But perhaps you're not satisfied by the salad...or you're eating the salad because you didn't "earn" the burger...or you "can't" have the burger because you're not "allowed" to have carbs/red meat/processed food/fat etc.
The danger comes in rigidity...when the rules intended to achieve a "look" or "performance outcome" consume us and leave little room to listen to what our body and mind need.
I repeat: I'm not against movement or eating to fuel performance. But I am hyper aware of my clients relationship to each and their flexibility to achieve life balance.
There are red flags I keep an eye out for when working with anyone - disordered or not. Existence of the flag doesn't necessarily indicate someone has an eating disorder, but it does clue me in to ask more questions and dip deeper ...
Note: these are not meant to be used to diagnose an eating disorder but rather instances that need more exploration / unpacking to understand someone's motivations and relationship to food, their body, and movement
But isn't sport about pushing the body?
There are times for any athlete where the diet is manipulated for performance and body / life changes may occur as a result. For example, during intense periods of training, one might spend less time with friends and family in order to meet training demands. Or similarly, intensive training may change the shape of the body due to the inability to get adequate nutrition (not a good thing long term folks). However, these circumstances and the changes that come with them are and should be short lived because long term the behaviors (and the changes that come with them) aren't sustainable.
The moral of the story...
The training body, racing body, and resting body are often different - and that's ok! The body and soul must return to a place of balance- where one eats all foods, is socially active, and well fueled. We have to remember to move with the body - not against it.
Stay nourished friends!
DISCLAIMER: The information presented here is meant to be for general education. If you want individual guidance to reach your unique health goals, please contact me or a local dietitian directly
Dietitian, personal trainer, mother, wife, runner, and triathlete staying healthy one bit and bite at a time