Nutrition and eating disorders

Jan Farmer running cross country; photo by Owen Barder

Jan Farmer running cross country

Nutrition for women runners

We shall look at a balanced diet for runners in Chapter 6.   However, there are a few issues that affect women more than men.

First, you should ensure that you get enough iron in your diet.  Iron is essential for transporting oxygen through your bloodstream, as well as providing a key building block of muscle tissue.  It is easy for women to become anaemic (i.e. have insufficient iron) because of menstruation.  In addition, some women don’t eat red meat, which is a major dietary source of iron.  If you don’t eat red meat, make sure that you get iron from sources such as dark green vegetables, beans and dried fruit.  Avoid drinking coffee or tea with your meals, as these interfere with the absorption of iron.  Watch carefully for the symptoms of anaemia, which include fatigue, palpitations, dizziness, dryness of mouth, sores in the corner of the mouth and brittle hair.  If necessary take a food supplement to maintain your iron levels.

Second, you should ensure that you have enough calcium.  This is essential for building strong bones, and avoiding osteoporosis; it may also help to reduce high blood pressure.  Dairy products are generally a good source of calcium; if you don’t eat dairy products then try to buy calcium-fortified alternatives (you can buy calcium-fortified mineral water, orange juice and soya milk, for example).

Third, some women runners don’t eat enough fat.  You need some fat in your diet, not least to ensure that you have healthy hair and skin.  Remember that some fats are good for you – try to increase your intake of monounsaturated fats (e.g. from olive oil and nuts) and essential fatty acids (e.g. from oily fish and seeds) while avoiding saturated fats (which mainly come from animal products).  See Chapter 6 for more details. Insufficient fat is highly correlated with amenorrhea (i.e. irregular periods – see above) which can have long term health repercussions.

Eating disorders

The number of women suffering from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is growing in many western societies.  People with anorexia nervosa restrict their food intake and have a distorted image of their bodies.  A person with bulimia nervosa may also restrict food intake, but binges occasionally, usually followed by self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives.  On the negative side, compulsive running can be a symptom of an eating disorder.  On the positive side, running can promote a positive self-image and help to control body weight without resorting to unhealthy eating habits.

Running as a symptom of eating disorders

Compulsive exercising, including running, can be a symptom of bulimia.  Running can be a popular sport for women on the margin of bulimia, because it is such an effective way of burning calories.

It is sometimes difficult to recognise the early symptoms of eating disorders, especially in yourself.  It is important for people close to us – particularly family and good friends – to pay attention. While it is normal for competitive athletes to pay attention to their weight, some women runners may become fixated.  If you suspect that you, or someone close to you, may be suffering from an eating disorder, you should seek expert help right away.  Anorexia and bulimia are serious illnesses, and can be very damaging and, in extreme cases, fatal.

There is a larger group of people who don’t suffer from an eating disorder but who are a little bit too obsessive about what they eat. They sometimes live under a tyranny of counting every calorie, or every gram of fat.  This can be stressful for them, and those around them, and can be unhealthy if they are too restrictive in what they eat because they don’t get a balanced diet containing all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that they need.  It is also frequently self-defeating: all too often they will go hungry throughout the day, eating too little for breakfast and lunch, who are so hungry by the end of the day that they eat too much.  As we shall see in Chapter 6, it is healthier to eat a large breakfast, and to eat little and often throughout the day.

Running as a way to a positive self-image

In Chapter 6 we shall look at how we can use exercise to help to manage weight and body fat.  In general, exercise is a much less damaging, and more sustainable, way to lose weight than dieting.  Controlling what you eat can be negative, destructive and unhealthy; while managing your weight through exercise promotes a positive self-image, confidence, and builds a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

A runner’s journey from an eating disorder

It has been a journey of sorts over the course of nearly nine years. Something like a long, hard cross country course: undulating, rough ground, changeable weather – sometimes for and sometimes against!

What started out as a very negative and destructive relationship between food and running turned a corner and developed into a solid working partnership. Running alone helped me to gain self-reliance, strength and self-confidence. Little by little I learnt that to build on these traits required nourishment, both physically and emotionally, and that running tended to both these needs. Whereas running used to be a weapon used against food, slowly and gently it became an ally. Fuelling-up appropriately and pushing myself to finish a hard run, knowing and trusting that my body will carry me through to a strong finish instead of ending a race with feelings of emptiness and weakness is truly an empowering feeling. It’s given me the sense that, through effort, sheer hard work and respect for both others and myself, anything is possible!

Nia Parry, London.

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