Disordered Eating and Obsessive Exercise: The Dangerous Cycle
By Heather Arsenault
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when my obsession with food, diet, and exercise began. From a young age, I was always smaller than my peers, and remained on the low end of the height and weight charts. I was a very active child, involved in several athletic activities from an early age, including swimming, soccer, gymnastics, and track and field. My parents were physically active, as well. My mom taught aerobics at the local YWCA, and both my mom and dad cycled, ran, and frequented the gym.
The first time I remember being concerned with my weight was around the age of 10, when I began to compete as a gymnast. I was by no means overweight, and was probably underweight, but I remember feeling self-conscious around the other girls in my skin-tight leotard. Around this time, I also began to notice that most of the really good gymnasts were small and lean, with seemingly no body fat. I watched the Olympic gymnasts on television and was impressed by their lean, strong, and agile bodies. I remember being amazed that some of these girls were in their late teens and even early twenties because they all looked much younger, or at least their bodies did. This was the first time that I associated being lean with having superior athletic ability and performance.
In junior high, I began to run cross-country. I absolutely loved both the sport and the feeling that came with running long distances. I was smaller and faster than most of my team mates, and running came easily to me. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was winning most of my cross-country meets with relative ease. I loved winning, and the confidence that gave me.
In high school, I began to notice that my body wasn’t maturing as quickly as the other girls were, although it didn’t bother me. I enjoyed being thin, and was pretty sure that it enabled me to run faster and win more. The more competitive I became in cross-country, the more conscious I was of the foods I ate, and how much I put into my body. I consciously cut down on my food intake and became very interested in nutrition, specifically athletic performance nutrition. Though I don’t know where I got this idea from, at some point I came to believe that consuming foods that contained any amount of fat was bad. I made a conscious decision to omit fat entirely from my diet. I started to read all food labels and shied away from eating foods that didn’t have a label. I was pretty much hungry all of the time, which wasn’t surprising, given the amount of energy I expended in training and competing. Yet, I was terrified of gaining weight and jeopardizing my running performance. I wanted to maintain a competitive edge and that, to me, meant staying very lean. I was obsessed with fitness and nutrition. In the process, I prevented my body from maturing. As a senior in high school, I was 5’3” and 95 pounds — underweight by all standards.
The first significant break I took from running was during the winter of my senior year. I had already been accepted to a top ten, Division I college’s women’s cross-country team. I needed a little break to enjoy my senior year and to behave more like my peers. During the month that I took off from running, I also eased up on my strict eating habits, and allowed myself to eat some foods that contained fat. Within four weeks, I had gained close to ten pounds. I was not happy. Everyone told me that I looked great, but I didn’t like the new shape that my body had assumed. To my dismay, I looked like a young woman instead of a prepubescent teen. I was not at all comfortable in my new skin. This discomfort initiated what turned into many years of unhealthy dieting and exercise practices driven by poor body image.
My story is not unlike that of many young, female athletes. Studies show that athletes are far more prone to developing eating disorders than are non-athletes. The highest prevalence of eating disorders exists among female athletes who compete in sports where leanness is considered important for performance: such as gymnastics, figure skating, swimmers, and runners. Furthermore, personality traits that are advantageous to competitive athletics ( such as perfectionism, compulsiveness, and high achievement expectations) are also commonly associated with eating disorders.1
A Norwegian study of elite female athletes sought to identify risk factors for eating disorders. Interestingly, the study found that training for a specific sport before the body matures can provoke a conflict in which the athlete struggles to prevent the natural physical changes brought about by growth and maturity.2 For me, this was clearly the cause of great inner turmoil.
Prevention education is crucial to addressing eating disorders and exercise obsession. Athletes, parents, coaches, training staff, and doctors need to be taught the risks and warning signals of disordered eating and compulsive exercise. It’s critical for them to be aware that young gymnasts, swimmers, figure skaters and long distance runners are at an elevated risk for developing an eating disorder. Special care should be taken with these young athletes to prevent stunting their growth and maturation, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of an eating disorder. Another strategy for handling this obsession is to stress to the young athlete the importance of a strong body, which is very important if the athlete intends to pursue his or her sport in the future. The potential dangers of restrictive dieting to the body should be addressed, such as the possibility of anemia, stress fractures, and other injuries. This harsh reality could serve as a deterrent to the serious athlete.
It’s no wonder that I developed an unhealthy obsession with food (or an eating disorder, as I still cringe to call it). I fit the eating disordered personality profile to a “T.” It took stepping back from my behaviors, and allowing myself to relax and have fun, to realize how neurotic my habits had become. It didn’t take long before I realized just how much joy in everyday activities I was missing due to my obsession with both food and exercise. Luckily, I had a wonderful support system of friends and family to help me through the transition which was, at times, not easy. To this day, I occasionally struggle with diet, exercise, and body image. I’m not entirely sure that anyone could have prevented my obsession with running, and I’m not even sure that I regret it. I do wish, however, that someone had intervened with my compulsive dieting. It would have saved me years of emotional, psychological, and physical anguish.
1. Hinton, P S, and Kubas, K L. “Psychosocial correlates of disordered eating in female collegiate athletes: validation of the athlete questionnaire,” Journal of American College Health 2005; 54(3):149.
2. Sundgot-Borgen J, "Risk and trigger factors for the development of eating disorders in female elite athletes," Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise 1994; 26(4): 414-419.
Heather Arsenault was a NWHN intern during Summer 2008. She will be graduating from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service in the Fall of 2008 with a masters in health policy and management. She has relocated to Washington DC, where she plans to continue working in the health policy field.