Q&A: “I’m a Runner Who is Binge Eating and I Need Help”

Note: I feel this email reflects many of the questions/emails I often receive, and it is shared here with permission. The behaviors described may be triggering to some, but I do not include numbers. I wanted to share this to show how common the issue is, how many are silent about eating disorders they may be experiencing due to shame, fear, and stigma, and what you can do if you find yourself in a similar situation. Note that I am only speaking from my experiences with an eating disorder and recovery. I am not a dietitian, therapist, counselor, eating disorder specialist, or any kind of medical professional, but encourage anyone to seek out these professionals as I describe below.

Q: I recently bought your book and am currently reading it. I have never related to something so much in my life. I have been crying reading it realize how bad my eating has become. I have been controlling what I have been eating for the past years so severely, thinking it will help me with my running.

I was coming off a great cross country season and ready for an even better track season. That’s when I suddenly started experiencing intense pain and just found out this week that I have a stress fracture in my femur. I am so crushed that I cannot run anymore. I have already taken weeks off and still have at least six more to go. I feel like I have lost such a huge part of my identity.

Since I haven’t been running, my eating has been out of control. I no longer follow the healthy eating plan my nutritionist gave me and I binge every single day. I started counted the calories during these binges and they are over X calories. I feel like I just cannot stop eating until the package of food is completely empty.

I tried telling my best friend about my problem and she recommended to just stop eating like that. I just do not think that she understands what I am going through. I am so scared to step on a scale. My stomach is so bloated all the time because I cannot stop eating.

I just do not know what to do from here and keep telling myself that I am going to stop binge eating but night after night I find myself nonstop eating until I feel physically sick. I’m scared to talk to my parents about what has been going on. I am embarrassed and worried they will be mad at me. I just cannot keep living like this and was wondering what I should do for help.

A: From someone who has been in a very similar situation, I get it. Everything you describe is relatable to not just my experience but also to the experiences of others.

I’m sorry for your physical and emotional pain–it can feel heartbreaking, lonely, confusing, and scary. I’m also sorry about your injury and how terrible that made you feel. Unfortunately, bone injuries seem to be common after restricting food (see more on RED-S), and eating disorders/mental health issues are also a common issue to come up when an athlete is injured. It happened for me both of the times I was injured in college. I was devastated. Looking back, I wish I would have reached out to see a school counselor to work through that time in my life, but thought it was just something for someone who was very depressed (“Not an athlete!” I thought). I can’t recommend seeing someone like a therapist or counselor enough!

My dad said something very similar to what your best friend said. Many people who haven’t struggled with this problem don’t understand it and think it’s as simple as just controlling it with discipline/willpower. In my experience, I learned that this was not a willpower/discipline issue—it was my body fighting back for what it needed after restricting food for years. I found it helpful to reach out to someone close to me–you may find this helpful as well. Note that even well-meaning family members and friends may try to offer advice because they think this is helpful. I’m guessing that your best friend was trying to help and figured it was as simple as just having “discipline” or control. You’ll probably read in my book that my mom didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation when I first told her, but we kept talking and she learned to support/listen.

I think eventually being open with your coach might help you, too–I know it helped me.

Working with my eating disorder sports dietitian was especially helpful. I found it especially helpful to be as honest as possible while working with her, and would encourage you to do the same (an eating disorder sports dietitian can really help you if you’re able to get one that focused). Being honest with my dietitian was tough for me when I was binge eating. I was so afraid she would think didn’t really have an eating disorder because I was eating what I thought was “too much.” I figured if she knew how much I really ate, she wouldn’t be able to treat me or think I was just gorging out of control.

Binge eating is a common part of the cycle of eating disorders, and our dietitians can only help us if we share as much as we can with them—what/how much we are eating, what we are feeling, etc. When I did share her what and how much I was eating, she didn’t turn me away—she was able to help me more, which for me meant increasing my meal plan size. Restriction won’t help end binge eating; if anything, it makes it worse. I understand the difficulty of getting out of that cycle, though.

I really encourage you to work with the professionals and have a support system with your friends, family, teammates, or coach. I know opening up for the first time is extremely tough, but it does get easier the more you do it. There are people who love and care about you who want to support; some just don’t know how when they first hear you out but are willing to learn.

No one has a quick fix, but there is help available, and I’m so glad you reached out to a nutritionist to help you along the way. This is your first of many courageous steps in breaking the silence. You are worth recovery and will overcome this with the support of those around you, professionals in this area, and striving for recovery.

You can find more resources (articles, professionals, treatment centers, etc) at the resources page here.