The Skinny on Being Skinny
Well, I don’t “like” to restrict calories, I do it because I’m neurotic and obsessive and a perfectionist, and I want to be an ideal weight in fanciful hope of delivering a speedy, flawless performance. Too many calories would mean I’d put on weight which would hamper my running ability, right? Actually, it just makes me hungry and think about food constantly. It makes me limp and lethargic; I bonk while training and make slow fitness gains with frequent set-backs. I am diligent about packing fuel for training runs (I’m even better at dictating what others should bring), yet I most always fail to consume adequate sugars in a timely manner. I’ve become sedulous, albeit insincere, in telling myself, “I’ll eat this time”. The intention is there because I’m always disciplined in the future. The present me, however, questions whether the feeling of hunger is authentic. I err on the side of lameness, and end up slowing down until I have to stop and devour more candy-bar (let’s face it, most sports-bars are just candy with a vitamin label) than is necessary which only prepares me to further restrict calories for the rest of the day. What this vicious cycle presents is characteristic of disordered eating. It is disordered eating. It is an obsession with an idea that, ultimately, is contradictory to the desired outcome.
Many women, and quite a few elite male athletes, chronically engage in this abstemious behavior believing it will assist them in making them faster, leaner, and (insidiously) more physically attractive. It is a basic law of motion that heavy things take more energy to move and require more friction to reduce their momentum. Charging uphill is an easier task when you have less weight to carry and also decreases muscle damage on the trot down the other side. Women who are less than 1.9 lbs/inch in height and men who are less than 2.1 lbs/inch tend to be better climbers–bouncing up the hill rather than feeling as though they’re in a massive squat workout with a small child on their shoulders.
What do we do about this terrible business of finding our optimal weight for performance without disturbing the body’s physiological balance and general health? Logically, I understand that being 5’6 and 120 lbs. is an acceptable weight for a female, but that acceptance only facilitates further extremism. I have intense trepidation of adding just one more pound–no–adding one more ounce, one more molecule of fat. When I lose weight or if I know I’ve kept my calories to a minimum, I feel svelte and decorous; proud, like a recovering addict having just refused her vice for the first time. It’s auto-catalytic: the more I lose, the more I feel an incentive to ascetically regulate. Professional cyclists and marathon runners frequently undergo weigh-ins and body composition evaluation by physicians who have been hired to keep them competitive and light. They have a science to which they can adhere; numbers and data and feedback to assist their progress, unlike myself who has only a scale, nutrition labels, and pessimistic thoughts to determine my presumed daily caloric intake.
Trying to decrease weight when you’re already close to optimal size is imprudent and will precipitate incidence of illness and injury. If you are eating less and exercising more, you will lose muscle as the weight comes off. Regardless of athleticism, if you aren’t maintaining adequate caloric intake and you’re in a deeper deficit due to increased running stress, the pursuit of being lighter is ineffective because you have less muscle to create power. If you are intent on losing pounds or really would benefit from lowering body fat, it is best to consume sufficient protein before embarking on a diet and increase that amount as you shed the weight to help maintain muscle mass. The obsession with weight should, instead, be overthrown by a scrutiny of body composition. Sometimes with exercise our weight increases because of muscle building and increased blood volume. The amount of lean muscle tissue in relation to percentage of body fat should be examined because one might be surprised at how their fitness has changed even though they have seemingly made no changes on the scale. This, I know.
Again, polite logic and wise principles don’t, in any way, alter my conscious stupidity. As a woman and athlete, I have a propensity to compare my physique to other women runners and prefer to ignore the reality of my performance in favor of a visual expectation. Similar to a person who has recently lost their eyesight and has experienced the phenomenon of still “seeing” until they’ve been confronted by a pole they’ve just walked into, the reality of my feckless obsession with being small only sets in once I’m violated by DNFs or pneumonia.
While men accumulate fat on the outside of their muscles making it very conspicuous when they have put on soft pounds, women, amass fat deposits within the muscle itself until they have filled up and fat is then stored on the hips, thighs and breasts. To thwart the inclination for storing fat, people restrict calories and, sometimes, whole food groups in an effort to reduce their size.
When a woman under-eats, she suppresses her estrogen levels which will affect her menstrual cycle and energy levels. Her reproductive system is halted because of the amount of stress her body is experiencing. Interruption in estrogen production evolved as a protective mechanism during famine; if food isn’t abundant, you aren’t prepared to carry a baby. Your hypothalamus, the area of your brain that monitors total body fat and anxiety, shuts off estrogen when it perceives stress levels to be too high. If your estrogen dips too low, you are at risk of osteoporosis and injury. Contrary to popular belief, limiting calories, not body-fat, that is responsible for lowered estrogen concentration. Recent studies are demonstrating that women can have body-fat percentages equal to athletic men and as long as they are consuming adequate calories, they will continue to menstruate and not suffer the symptoms of menopause (which is essentially what women experience with suppressed estrogen).
Moreover, acute or prolonged calorie restriction can lead to malnutrition where the pernicious affects are evident and take time to reverse. Symptoms include fatigue, weaker muscle contraction, anemia, frequent injuries, brittle bones, sleep disturbances, fertility complications as discussed, and increased recovery from training. These repercussions usually become apparent too late to simply start eating more to feel fresh. It will require cutting back on training intensity and distance and breaking through the psychological resistance to eating more for a few weeks for the body to rebound and feel stable again.
In sports where power-to-weight ratio influences the result, both men and women feel a pressure to control their size. If the result is significant enough, or is involved in identity creation/retention, the pressure can turn into disordered eating which, consequently, can turn into an eating disorder. The difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder is that the former is sub-clinical, though portentous. Unlike anorexia (refusal to eat) and bulimia (binging and purging), disordered eating is not usually a manifestation of a psychological disorder, such as depression or anxiety. It is characterized by food rituals (weighing/disassembling food and eating in a specific order), calorie counting, and excessive exercising to make up for eating a jellybean. Not every runner experiences this perverse inclination, though, many athletes are governed by such monomania, which is also a facet of their success. Competition begets tenacity which can turn into extremism and self-imposed dogma–the idea that nothing is ever enough. Not enough miles, not enough intensity, not enough races. This excess can creep up and dominate one’s life. Thirty-one percent of women without a history of an eating disorder admit having purged to control weight, and nearly seventy-five percent of women report that their concerns about shape and weight interfere with their happiness. In a study of collegiate male athletes, twenty percent noted behavior thought to be symptomatic of disordered eating (1).
Our obsessive behavior and frenzied devotion to self-interest and being acknowledged in an environment that venerates competition has become a psychological myopia. In a culture preoccupied with excess and abundance, it is exhilarating to be in control and lauded for your ability to resist. I’m consumed by guilt and shame if I temporarily resign from my diet of fiber and sugar-free protein bars. Eating, it appears, has become something I have to earn. I have difficulty in allowing myself to be nourished unless I have exercised that day. An ulcer from eating too much stevia extract would be tolerable, but not being outside of my ideal race weight. It is vain and irrational to cling to such an absurd belief, but emotion is what drives so much of our dearest held thoughts and convictions. Emotional response protects humans from harm because of its immediacy, it doesn’t leave room for critical thinking which would amend my erroneous conclusion that not eating will tip the scales if I’m sedentary for a day. The body needs fuel to recover and function, it will die without it, yet fear (our most primitive emotion) apprehends my ability to relax. Maybe the trick, the quick fix, to such a problem is having a professional tell you to eat more. If left to a self-assessment, many will be trapped in the caliginous “never enough” sepulcher, and the truth is, they’d really like to feel good about eating a cheeseburger or having an ice-cream once in a while. Most likely, they’d experience a remarkable boost in athletic ability and energy.
Eating a diet rich in real foods, whole foods unrefined foods, keeps the body in balance. It isn’t just your tissues and cardiovascular system that you are nourishing, you are servicing your brain and endocrine system as well. Issues around eating and obsessive calorie counting inhibits normal hormonal flux and interrupts serotonin (the neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood and appetite) release and re-uptake. It is imperative for physical and personal restoration to consume sufficient calories. Trail runners and endurance athletes will be happier and stronger if they feed themselves appropriately. Intense workouts demand refueling if you want any fitness progression. A frail athlete cannot possibly have as much energy as their heavier and more muscular counterpart. Women with a little more fat and muscle have more endurance and power for hills and maintaining speed over a long distance.
Exposing something that has such a stigma and speaking openly despite the discomfort would help alleviate the problem’s prevalence in the running community. Understanding that a few extra pounds will ensure health and strength which can equate to faster times and longevity in the sport will, hopefully, eradicate the obsession with calorie restriction and weight. Proliferating scientific conclusions and research regarding performance and sufficient nutrition will make eating an easier feat and shift the focus to the enjoyment of running…the enjoyment of living without worry. It is very cumbersome to have a constant anxiety, you can’t live in the present if you’re always suspended by concern. Replenishing your body with food should feel deserved and earned, not because of what you did that day, but because if your body is asking for food, it needs it.
I remind myself that indulging in “normal people” food a few times a week will make me a better runner–and less of a pain in the ass to take out to dinner. Instead of sitting rigidly and picking away at pieces of fat, or pretending I’m not hungry enough to eat the entire meal, I breathe and engage in a small inner dialogue: “It’s okay, you are getting stronger and will be happier.” Permit yourself to eat by reminding yourself of why you’re running and racing in the first place: joy.
1. Petrie, Trent A.. Prevalence of Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating Behaviors Among Male Collegiate Athletes. [Washington, D.C.]. UNT Digital Library. http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc31092/. Accessed March 2, 2013.