Talking About Disordered Eating

04/10/2017 04:22 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2017
photo credit: Joelle Zarcone

I grew up in a household where meals were celebrated, from the tiniest snacks to the fanciest holiday dinners. It was all done in a joyful way, the product of an always hungry Italian-American family. I was a petite kid and, for all intents and purposes, a normal eater, albeit picky (because obviously pancakes are more fun to eat than spinach, no?).

I had never been particularly athletic, but the summer before my senior year of college, I found a love for running, hitting the treadmill to ease my stress as an active college student. Looking back, I now realize that's when my experience with disordered eating began.

In a nutshell, disordered eating refers to a range of irregular eating behaviors that don’t necessarily require the diagnosis of a specific, clinically defined eating disorder. (Note: I am not a registered dietitian or physician; this is my understanding from personal research.)

Once I returned to college that fall to start my senior year, the disordered eating habits I had begun building that summer took flight, and running went from something I kinda, sorta dabbled in to see if I could even do it, to more of a consistent hobby. I was running almost daily, largely because I genuinely loved it, from the sense of accomplishment to feeling athletic for the first time in my life. This had its own concerns because, well, my body was just not built to run so many miles, but I was brand new to the sport and really didn’t know any better. The internet was nowhere near as robust or popular at that time (hello, 2007), and I didn't even know Runner's World magazine existed.

It’s taken me years to admit this to myself, never mind the universe, but running propelled me into what would become a many years-long struggle with disordered eating, from the latter years of college til the summer of 2013. I had, perhaps subconsciously, never allowed myself to recognize the fact that I'd truly had a problem.

For reasons I’m not sure I really understand nor can articulate even now, running fostered the explosion of incredibly disordered eating patterns within myself. Running was inextricably tied to my eating habits at this time, and morphed into a semi compulsion instead of just an enjoyable hobby. And all of it was a haphazard attempt to be what I thought was super healthy - nothing sinister. I was running all the time and only eating certain foods I deemed as "safe," i.e., low in calories and fat, like apples or a certain brand of cereal that promotes the diet culture. But, I was not eating nearly enough to support my high activity levels. 

It's important to note I was never bulimic or anorexic, never experienced any major weight fluctuations, and to most who knew me at the time, probably seemed relatively normal - just hyper focused on being very “healthy,” or my definition of it at the time. I was eating regularly (meals and snacks), but just plain out not enough total calories nor overall nutrients (fat/carbs/protein). Most of what I ate fell into that range I had determined was safe, and I used running to compensate for the calories that I considered miscellaneous or unhealthy, like alcohol, or foods eaten late at night after parties. 

And as a result, I ended up getting a stress fracture in my hip the second semester of my senior year. You can only run on a half tank of gas for so long before you break down.

You'd think this would have forced me to reevaluate my eating and exercise habits, but it didn't. One close friend called me out, but I refused to believe her and couldn’t acknowledge there was truth in her statement for far too long. I wish now that I'd had the fortitude to see the love and honesty coming from this friend, but it {literally} took me years.

That was, though, a tipping point of sorts for me. I ended up, after healing and graduating, moving on to run outdoors more regularly, which greatly changed my view on the activity itself. I also began reading food blogs and running magazines/websites, and learned overall more about listening to my body as well as properly fueling myself. But, I was still holding on to a lot of the same eating habits and ideals, including trying to stick within a certain calories range just because I'd read in some women’s health magazines that that was what was best for me if I wanted to stay fit... whatever that means. 

My eating habits and food rules eventually became sort of maddening; how could they not? I was so frustrated because it felt like couldn't eat like other people or else I assumed I’d gain weight, and couldn’t understand how most of my family and friends didn’t seem to think making healthy food choices was as important as I did. As someone who had always celebrated food and appreciated going out to eat with loved ones her entire life, I began feeling extremely restricted whenever dining out. I felt like I couldn't order what I really wanted on restaurant menus, and I would mentally beat myself up for not choosing the healthier options or eating "too" much of items I considered unhealthy whenever my willpower collapsed. I was still eating many of my favorite foods, like pizza and pancakes, but not nearly as often, nor not without extreme feelings of guilt. Veggies are good, carbs are bad, right? As someone who grew up loving food in a big way, this became a major conflict in my life, not to mention a sticking point with family members who didn't understand why I could be so hard on myself and not see how great (and healthy!) I had always been just the way I was, especially without being so regimented.

This continued, through grad school, on to moving to Washington, D.C. to start my career. It settled down at this point, affecting me at a lesser degree than what I had initially experienced in college, but the food rules and guilt and disordered eating habits were still with me nonetheless. It was strangling, but yet I still didn’t see that my behaviors were abnormal for a woman my age.

In the summer of 2013, after overcoming a snowball of traumatic events in my family, as well as a foot surgery that kept me from pounding the pavement for a few months, I began training for my first half marathon. Training for and finishing my first long distance race is what, I believe, finally broke me out of my disordered eating for good. Racing was a gift in so many way, and I am still ever so grateful.

Somehow the thing that launched me into my disordered eating also freed me. Irony at its finest.

Racing changed my mindset on how I viewed eating and my body, as well as health overall. Something flipped inside of my brain, and not only was I able to almost seamlessly transition back to being a relatively normal eater, but I came to realize how troubling my previous eating habits had been over the course of what was about six years.

Even though it was not a full blown eating disorder, my disordered eating (and the associated negative self-talk and exercise compulsion), was like a prison, whether I consciously realized that while I was experiencing it or not. It was isolating, draining, tedious, and stressful.

I felt alone, but in hindsight, I now know I wasn’t. Many of my friends and colleagues were navigating similar experiences, often unaware they even had a problem.

That's the reason I'm sharing all of this now. Not because I need my story out on the Internet for strangers to pick apart or diagnose, but because I want anyone who's gone through something similar (or currently going through it) to know they're not alone. And that's not how life has to be. I promise. 

That's not to say I'm perfect now, but I no longer look at food or eating in a disordered way, and instead honor my body’s needs. I have surrounded myself with positive messages, both in person and across social media, as well as real nutrition information. As a result, I can recognize the signs of a disordered eating habit poking its head up and what it means, and am able to combat that negative self-talk that often is associated with egging it on. I no longer need to out-run my love for food, and intuitive eating has supported that immensely.

The issue of disordered eating is rarely spoken about and often perpetuated by social media and a diet culture that has become ingrained in the fabric of our lives. If you are going through something similar, I hope you find the courage to reach out to someone you trust, and get help. Eating a certain way or a certain amount, or just because you worked out (or because you didn’t) does not make you a good or bad person. It doesn’t define your worth or signify how much space or value you can hold in this world.

You are amazing just the way you are, whether you can see it or not.

*This essay was inspired by a blog post on the author’s website, joellezarcone.com.

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