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Food Issues and the Female Athlete Triad

This is a post that I've written and re-written, started and re-started about a hundred times but I think the recent developments in my injured status have sort of brought things to light and I feel like now is as good a time as ever to open up just a bit on this blog with something personal and probably something that effects more people than would like to admit it.

I can't say that I have or have ever had an eating disorder but I can confidently say that I have had and may still have a pattern of disordered eating. For anyone who isn't familiar with the term, there are a billion different definitions of who a "disordered eater" is but for my purposes I refer to myself as such because I do not eat like I would say a "normal" person does. It has nothing to do with being a vegetarian and it's not that I just don't eat. I also don't binge eat or have an obsession with healthy eating known as orthorexia. But I can't deny that I don't like to eat or activities that are centered around food (which so many American activities are), I feel some sense of guilt when I eat foods that aren't "good", and congratulate myself for "good eating" days. I've also been known to berate myself for "bad eating" moments.

This Hungry Runner Girl post and this one too does an excellent job of explaining something called the Female Athlete Triad. In a nutshell the triad is made up of three pretty serious conditions that result in decreased performance in the form of things like stress fractures and frequent injuries or fatigue. The triad consists of:
  1. Disordered Eating - Basically abnormal eating habits (eating too little for the amount of exercise being done included) and excessive exercise leading to the body not receiving enough nutrients.
  2. Menstrual Dysfunction - AKA abnormal or completely absent periods resulting from physical stress (excessive exercise), poor nutrition (undereating), or low percentage of body fat (not a problem I have although I did lose a significant amount of body fat in a relatively short period of time).
  3. Osteoporosis - Or as my high school gym teacher called it, "Osteo-bone-disease". Just like Dr. Smith said, lack of menstrual cycle halts the production of certain female hormones necessary in ensuring bone health. 
Put those things together and you get the triad and start down a bad path full of lingering pains and injuries, fatigue and fitness setbacks.

When I first started my journey to lose weight I was adamant about doing it right. I'd seen my sister and numerous other young girls and women in my life take the "cottage cheese only for 6 months" approach to weight loss and while it works to a degree it's completely unsustainable. I'd never had weight problems in my life until I was old enough to luckily understand a little bit about how the body worked so I sort of knew better. That didn't stop me from developing really unhealthy food habits. I wasn't so severe that I would binge and purge but I did restrict. I did go the route of "No chips (or other "bad" foods) EVER!" and would punish myself through exercise and internal insults when I would "slip up". When I first noticed my weight gain 3 years ago, I jumped into skipping meals and made a habit of not eating all day so that I could eat dinner with my then boyfriend (turned husband) without feeling guilty and without him knowing that I was restricting calories. Not eating does not lead to weight loss. I continued to gain through my diet of processed foods until I'd fallen into a pretty deep depression. I've struggled with depression my entire life so although this wasn't a new feeling, it had a new cause and that didn't make it any easier to get over.

Like many challenges, things had to get worse before they'd get better. At one point things had gotten so bad that I would eat snacks in the bathroom at work so that no one would see the tears streaming down my face because I was so disappointed in myself for even being hungry. This was during the time I was trying to track my food and calories to lose weight. I knew that food more than exercise impacted weight loss so while I worked out with some home DVDs during that time I honestly didn't have the energy to put in serious cardio time. I began taking doctor prescribed Vitamin D which you can read about here and it did wonders for increasing my energy. My increased energy lead to productivity which helped me to build some self confidence as I saw myself accomplishing things. I started cooking more and though I still had some hunger guilt I was able to overcome it most days and get into a much healthier state.

I won't say triathlon and running were the culprits but they were the reasons for my increased amounts of exercise. I love running and I love triathlon but I don't love eating. I had finally gotten to a comfortable weight and was proud of my achievements in fitness so I found a consistent food schedule that I have stuck with for a long time. The problem is that as my exercise increased, my food intake did not. Despite the Marathon Monster who demanded food, I became a pro at sticking to my schedule and ignoring hunger pangs that occurred outside of my normal eating hours. I continued losing for a few months before I hit a plateau with my weight and my menstrual cycle had stopped long before that. The problem was at that point I was happy with the weight I was at so the plateau and bodily changes didn't bother me enough to realize what was going on.

Fast forward and we end up here. The months of improper fueling have caught up to me and are causing me problems doing the very things I love to do and that have made me feel so healthy through this difficult time. Where I'm struggling now is with the idea of actually increasing my caloric intake. Yesterday I tracked what I ate which was difficult for me because I link tracking with the onslaught of my disordered eating but I started to see where the missing calories were. I noticed my daily lunch which seemed adequate to me is only 360 calories. The amount I eat throughout the day is fine for someone trying to lose or maintain weight but not if that person is as active as I am. If we look at it from a Weight Watchers perspective, I'm staying within my food points without taking into account my activity points. This morning was difficult for me as I got on the scale and saw I'd actually gained a couple of pounds. The logical side of my brain knows how silly it is to weigh yourself often and rely on that number for validation. The logical side of my brain knows that people can fluctuate between 5 pounds over 24 hours every single day. But it's hard for me to digest (like that play on words?) any kind of weight gain after I've been working so hard to lose.

I am so grateful for the outpouring of help from my fellow tri club members in particular regarding ways to increase my calories the right way. Last night I made my own naked burrito bowl with extra guacamole (Ole!) and this morning I added almond butter to my oatmeal which worked really well for some extra numbers and extra flavor. In the meantime if you have tricks for me to add a little more to my meals I would appreciate it very much. Please be respectful of me and anyone else you come across with any sort of food issue and keep snide or smartass comments to yourself (i.e. "Eat a burger!" or "I wish someone told me to eat more!"). Food issues are very difficult to deal with because unlike an alcoholic who can avoid a bar, everyone needs to see a kitchen.

Hopefully this has been some good information for everyone (men and women) and please leave some feedback on whether or not you think this type of thing is worth talking about. I'm here for you (sort of) and if you all think I should keep my blogging strictly to racing, training and pictures of my cats I'd be happy to consider obliging.

It's almost Friday friends so for those of us who don't work weekends, we're almost there!


  1. Its a crazy relationship... one with food. Some people (ex: my husband) can eat what they want & don't think twice. I have to be aware of every single bite that goes in my mouth.. working out, not working out, for fun, for pleasure, for nutrition. Its tiring & exhausting sometimes... & it has a different effect on each person. Crazy! I appreciate your honesty here with your journey... it takes everyone's stories to learn from... & know you're not alone in struggles.


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