The origin of my (and many other athletes’) battle with LEA/DE eating began innocently enough. Being a lifelong competitive swimmer, I was comfortable and confident in my skin. Eating breakfast after 2-hour practices was as much a celebration of completing whatever impossible workout the coach had dreamed up, as it was a physiological need to refuel my body. I was spent, had nothing left to give, and often had a second session later in the day to prepare for. I didn’t think twice about the calories I was consuming or the size of my thighs when I stood on the start blocks. My body was not yet the enemy and food was not the antagonist.
Transitioning from swimming to running/triathlon took years and the subtle messaging about body composition crept in just as slowly. To be an elite athlete in endurance sports you had to look a certain way, train 20+ hours a week, and perform at a certain level. Tackling the training was the easy part. Performing at races was the fun part. Getting my body to fit into the mold was an obsession and it became the dangerous part. You’d be surprised the amount of insane and dark strategies you come up with to justify unhealthy eating.
Training fasted, not eating after long brick sessions, avoiding social gatherings where food was involved, eating only one big meal a day when interacting with friends and family... the list goes on and on. Food was also about control – I could control how much (or little) I ate, I could control the ‘willpower’ it took to starve myself all day long, I could control how my body looked on social media, I could control the self-righteous narrative surrounding organic/plant-based/Paleo diets (insert your diet trend of choice here). What I couldn’t control was stopping and feeding my body enough to survive.
Over the course of several years, I became vitamin and mineral deficient, I lost my cycle, my hair fell out, I had horrible night sweats, and my bone density was so low I had early signs of osteoporosis. That led to stress fractures, depression, anxiety and loneliness. Disordered eating isolates you from the people and things you love. Food is constantly on your mind; so much so that regular daily activities become torture. The sad part was – in my “quest” to hit that top podium spot and collect social media accolades – the only things I really ended up getting were trips to doctor’s offices and a fucked-up body image. I wasn’t winning races; I was hobbling around on crutches.
So, what does “recovery” actually look like? Let’s just say it wasn’t an immediate or overnight fix. I would make progress, then relapse. Some days eating was easy and welcomed, others it was an ironman-level battle. It took a coach pulling me out of swim practice and asking if I was ok. He offered help and spoke honestly about what things looked like from his perspective. I couldn’t help myself; it took someone who cared to step in. I spoke with my family and a therapist. I started eating 3 meals a day, I welcomed healthy fats into my diet with abandon. I threw out my scale, took a break from social media, got my blood tested, had a DEXA scan, and addressed the inner damage I’d done by not eating enough. I changed the way I trained and dove headfirst into strength training. This girl wasn’t going down without a fight, I was going to get strong and learn to love my HEALTHY body. I threw out the “skinny pants”; those jeans you barely squeezed into at your thinnest that became the benchmark for diet success. I forced myself to eat on days I didn’t feel like it and journaled about how I was feeling. I tracked progress by how much I could squat and the fact my period came back with almost train-schedule-like consistency.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. If you are struggling with under-fueling, whether it's intentional or not, there is a way to get help. You’re not alone. Speak to a friend, coach, parent, spouse or therapist. The first step is terrifying.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story,
Where to get help