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Exercise bulimia: the new eating disorder

February 12, 2016
Exercise Bulimia

Did you know there are other eating disorders that can be a lot more subtle and less talked about than the bigger, more well known ones like anorexia? For example, constant yoyo dieting and binge eating is one, where someone keeps going into a binge-punish cycle in which they restrict themselves from consuming enough calories, then they slip up and make up for them later on, and it just becomes a vicious binge/starve cycle: classic yoyo dieting.

One other eating issue I often see is what is called exercise bulimia, which is what I am going to talk about today. Here is the Wikipedia definition of it:


“Exercise bulimia is a subset of the psychological disorder called bulimia in which a person is compelled to exercise in an effort aimed at burning the calories of food energy and fat reserves to an excessive level that negatively affects their health.”


 

I think this is one of the easiest eating disorders to cover up & one that athletes and fit women especially like to use to make up for their “food sins”. Why? Because it’s easy to justify exercising, because after all it’s “healthy” to workout all the time, and if you are an athlete, then you have even more reason to justify excessive exercise.

People who suffer from exercise bulimia will binge on food and then exercise obsessively to make up for it. Exercise becomes a way to control calories, justify eating, and punish themselves for eating too much or eating “bad” foods. This can be a slippery slope because people often like to lie to themselves and cover up their reasons for the excessive exercise.

Now, I am not saying you have a problem or disorder just because you like to train really hard. I’m all for training hard, and love a good sweat sesh. But it really goes back your reasons/motivation for it. If you are working out hard because you feel fueled up, & you want to get fitter, improve your performance & feel better (& even look better overall), then I would not say this is disordered in any way.

On the other hand, if you are working out extra hard to punish yourself because you feel guilty about the food you ate, then that could be a symptom of this problem. If you get really anxious or guilty if you are unable to exercise, this could also be a symptom. Again though, it comes down to your motivation behind it (and only you can answer this truthfully). If you exercise primarily to control your weight or to “make up” for excessive calories that you have already eaten or are about to eat then that is where the disorder comes into play.

It may not mean you have an official “eating disorder” if you have these feelings from time to time. It just means that if you let the feelings get out of hand this could end up becoming an obsession & vicious cycle. It will zap your energy and keep you from reaching your performance goals.

The thing that annoys me is that society at large plays a role in perpetuating the idea that exercise should be a punishment for “bad” eating. It’s in the movies, it’s in the magazines. People joke about it: "Gotta burn off the weekend’s bad food " or "I need to get to the gym because I want to eat dessert tonight.” Even trainers joke about it: "Let’s go a bit faster, gotta burn off those margaritas, ladies." Somewhere along the way, we’ve internalised the idea that we should exercise in order to justify our diet sins. But I completely disagree & and I feel that this attitudes perpetuates the problem and causes further disordered eating.

Training should not be about punishing your body, but about performing better, reaching goals & being a better, stronger person. Of course, as a trainer & nutritionist, I often do encourage awareness when it comes to food consumption, and avoiding careless indulgence to the point of binging. But I also discourage the idea that we can and should workout extra because of our indulgences.

And to be honest, I strongly caution against this type of behavior, because ultimately, it’s destructive. Masking your food problems by exercising even more to try to burn off the excess calories you’ve just eaten will turn into a vicious cycle. One or two days of less than ideal eating aren’t going to suddenly ruin months of great eating. What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.

Here are my top 3 tips for dealing with exercise-induced eating disorders:

1. Build muscle. Strength training increases confidence, and women who have muscle and love strength training don’t resort to punishing their body with food. Better yet, join a gym with likeminded individuals who care more about what their bodies can DO than how they LOOK. CrossFit gyms are great for encouraging this attitude.

2. Discover & practice self-compassion. Learn how to look after yourself (mind and body) rather than constantly trying to punish yourself. Changing this attitude about yourself (yes it will take some work, but it is possible) will make a world of difference. Take care of your body by taking care of your thoughts. Stop holding yourself to unreasonable standards, talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a friend. Show compassion. Read books about it if you need to. There are plenty of books you can read relating to this. Look up Brene Brown. She has a few books & in them she talks a lot about self-compassion, vulnerability, shame & courage.

3. Get to the bottom of your eating behaviors. Ask yourself why you’re eating the way you are. Be honest with yourself, and try to put things into perspective. Then get honest about finding solutions. Remember you can’t truly change if you don’t want to admit there is a problem in the first place.

Last but not least, if you are an athlete (or a fit woman) who struggles with your weight/body image, you may be surprised to find that your body looks and feels better when you become less of a perfectionist. Less punishment leads to fewer restrictions, which leads to less binging, which leads to fewer punishments. The guilt we feel around food adds huge amounts of stress to the body. Let go of the guilt and watch your body heal, & your confidence soar.

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