What I Learned as a Collegiate Runner Majoring in Dietetics (Guest Post by Maggie Farrell) Part 3

Read Part 1 of Maggie’s Journey here.

Read Part 2 of Maggie’s Journey here.

Donate to her Running in Silence marathon journey fundraiser here! Maggie will be running the Austin Marathon THIS Sunday representing Running in Silence.

Since I wrote my initial blog post for Running in Silence, I have had several people ask me, “Why did you wait until now to share your struggles?” To be honest, I was scared–scared of what admitting I had a problem would mean for my running career. Scared that asking for help made me weak and people would question if I had actually had a problem.

It took stepping away from competitive running to realize that asking for help didn’t make me weak. My perspective mattered.

I shared in my first post that the first time I ever worried about my weight wasn’t until my junior year of high school. However, upon reflection, I realized that this isn’t entirely the truth. I remember stepping on the scale as a fourth grader. When I looked down at the scale, I remember feeling dissatisfied with the number and making myself get out the door for a walk. That night for dinner, I cut back on the number of bread and butter slices (a staple in my diet at that time) because I had been told that bread was “bad.”  Fourth grade.That is absurd.

I bring up this experience to illustrate how difficult it is to have a healthy relationship with food and our bodies today. We are told, explicitly or implicitly, at a very young age, that our weight is one of the most important things about us. I won’t go too much into how our diet culture is harming our relationship with food at the very first exposure because we could be here for a while. I do, however, want to point out that this exposure to diet culture, in combination with additional pressures to “stay fit” and look a certain way in competitive sports, can make someone’s susceptibility to developing an eating disorder incredibly high.

Some examples of diet culture are:

  • The labeling of certain foods as “good” or “bad.” Like I mentioned above, bread is typically demonized by our culture as something that is bad. This often leads many people to try a gluten-free diet. However, there is no evidence that gluten is bad for you, unless you are celiac or have a gluten allergy.
  • Bragging about skipping out on a meal or just eating an energy bar instead of a meal.
  • The idea that you must work to “earn” certain foods. We don’t need to earn food! We expend energy simply by being alive. Our bodies need food to function properly, and we need food we enjoy to keep our minds happy and healthy.
  • Skipping out on meals so you can “save” calories for one meal or occasion. This one is common, but it can be harmful to your body and can lead to binge eating.

I have shared with you all my eating disorder experience. So what tangible steps can we take to improve the situation?

  1. Let’s change how we talk about food and our bodies. The number of children that poor body image or are already thinking about dieting is absurd. What exactly are we teaching our kids about their worth?
  2. Advocate for more Registered Dietitians in sports. While I might be a little biased, RDs have an enormous amount of knowledge and skills that they can use to help athletes better their relationship with food. A registered dietitian is a credentialed healthcare professional that undergoes 4 years of science-heavy undergrad degree, a year worth of supervised practice paired with a master’s degree. They rely on evidence-based interventions to help their patients improve their nutrition status, depending on their needs.
  3. Stop commenting on the bodies of athletes. It really doesn’t matter whether you are commenting on weight gain, weight loss, how “fit” someone looks, etc. You don’t know the mental space of the individual and how they will perceive your comment, regardless of your intention. There are so many other things you can complement someone on – what a great teammate you think they are, their ability to help you through a workout, their outfit, etc. I know these are some of the comments that motivated me to continue to show up and be there for my teammates when I was struggling with my eating disorder.
  4. Normalize asking for help! Eating disorders are a mental health issue and should not be taken lightly. Those struggling with an eating disorder should seek the help of a healthcare team. This team should, ideally, include their primary care doctor, psychologist, and dietitian, preferably a dietitian that specializes in eating disorder patients.

We all have the power to change the culture of eating disorders in sports. It starts with the way we talk about food, our bodies, and how we define fitness. I encourage coaches to hire dietitians or other reputable professionals to come speak about nutrition to their athletes, and train coaches on eating disorders in sports. Finally, every single one of us has the ability to be there, without judgement, for a struggling teammate, child, or friend to talk to.

If you are struggling, I encourage you to seek help. I know it takes a lot of courage–and like me, some time, too–but it’s worth it.

~Maggie Farrell