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Athlete Struggling with an Eating Disorder

By January 29, 2013

I am a 30-year-old female, 5’2″ and weigh roughly ***. I have struggled with an eating disorder for eight years although my weight has been relatively healthy for the past few years. However, my eating and mentality are very disordered. I had worked with a dietitian in the past to get back on track, but have fallen off and do not have anyone to work with right now. I am an athlete (although I know I have tendencies towards over-exercising) and was an athlete before ED. I am training for my first triathlon now. My questions are about calories and timing. I do wish I could be ***, but what should I eat to simply maintain my current weight with NO exercise? Also, does the timing at which you eat really make a difference for weight gain or storing as fat? I know for overall energy and function it’s better to spread it out, but I really struggle with eating like a bird all day, training hard for 90 minutes a day, and then eating a ton at night, more out of habit and routine than hunger. I am so ingrained that “you must get your calories for the day,” but do NOT let myself go over my self-induced limit. I find that I usually do go over the limit and then wake up with a number I’ve already eaten and have to subtract that from my daily tally for that day. I tend to eat 1,500-1,600 a day with 90 minutes of exercise a day. Is that enough? Too much? I’ve kept this routine for quite a while and I am not losing weight at all, in fact at some points, I think I’m getting bigger or at least more flabby. I wonder if I have shut down my metabolism because of either not eating enough or because the majority of what I am eating is right before bed and it is just making me fat. Can you PLEASE help me? It has been such a battle. I’m afraid to eat more during the day or overall because I don’t want to gain. I’ve contacted so many people for help and they never respond. Thank you. – Sarah

Hi, Sarah,

Let me address the easier of the questions first.  For sport, it is important to eat enough throughout the day and especially important to fuel your body right before activity and about every 30 minutes during activity lasting longer than one hour.  When the activity is complete, the goal is to eat something balanced (like chocolate milk) within 15 minutes of completion followed by a meal within an hour.    When you are doing a triathlon, this energy is stored in the muscles as glycogen, not fat.  It is glycogen storage that enhances performance, not a low body weight.

I will honestly tell you that for every gram of glycogen that your muscles store, you will also store three grams of water.  This is a good thing and important for you to realize.  Hitting the wall and bonking happens when there is no longer any glycogen in the muscles.  You may want to read Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook  for more sports specific information.  The book also addresses eating disorders.

Eating throughout the day helps stabilize hunger and appetite.  If you don’t fuel yourself enough throughout the day, you will likely have higher cravings later on.

Most athletes don’t consciously eat less on non-exercise days.  They eat enough each day and sometimes it is the day after the event that they are hungrier and they allow themselves to eat more.

Now your weight and calorie question.  As you write your question, I can’t help but wonder why you want to know a number of calories without exercise, especially given that you said you don’t let yourself go over your self-induced limit.  As a dietitian, I would give my best guess of your caloric needs at 1,500-1,600 calories without exercise.  Your needs with exercise are much higher so I would suspect that your metabolism is compensating (slowing) in order to protect you.   You may also be burning protein (muscle) along with carbs and fat.  Also, without allowing these calories, your performance will likely suffer.

If you can connect with another Registered Dietitian, you can work on your individual needs, thoughts and concerns on a more regular basis and move forward in your recovery. See “Finding a Nutritionist” for more guidance.

Good luck,

Eileen Stellefson Myers, MPH, RD, LDN, FADA