Eating Disorders And Lifting

Article written by Jessica Evans

Compulsive exercise.

A keen awareness of calories and intake.

Hyper aware of nutrient content of food.

This list could be describing a fitness minded person or a person struggling with an eating disorder.

Trade calorie counting for macro tracking and the switch from having an eating disorder to having a passion for fitness seems to emerge. Or at least, it’s easier for the world at large to accept and understand, and easier for one who has an eating disorder to explain. There are three types of eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. All three are potentially life-threatening and can pose serious health risks when left untreated. Additionally, all three place extreme emphasis on body weight, shape and concern for calorie intake.

In my worst anorexic periods, I found clever ways to avoid eating. I would strike foods off my list of acceptable things to eat almost daily, and it got to the point I wasn’t comfortable eating, well … anything. Family and friends slowly began to expect that I’d be bringing my own food to events, or that I wouldn’t eat at all. I transitioned from pescatarian to vegetarian to vegan just so I could say no to a dish if it was placed in front of me. I obsessed with food preparation, spending hours prepping meals, weighing everything to the exact ounce and gram, and then carefully would package everything into Tupperware to portion out throughout the day. It was a way to exert a level of control over my life and my body. Even in the worst times, I thought I was doing something fantastic. I knew exactly what was going into my body. My macro split was perfect, my nutrition was on point. Never mind that I was running on average fifty miles a week, so roughly eight miles a day, and taking in around 800 calories. I thought what I was doing was the right think. But even still, it wasn’t enough. The more I compulsively exercised, tracked my macros, meal prepped and scrutinized every single ounce of fat on my body, the more I was damaging myself.

After extended periods of severe restriction, the adrenal glands in the body cease to function properly. Responsible for the production of cortisol, which helps to regulate metabolism, sugar levels and blood pressure, these glands are pretty much the end and beginning for life function. Because my struggles with eating have been ongoing for so many years, my adrenal glands are pretty well shot. Fatigued to the point that my body didn’t know if it should fight or flight, other symptoms and signs of anorexia began to manifest themselves – my hair stopped growing, my skin dulled, nails chipped and I stopped having a monthly cycle.

And yet, I continued. I took all the warning signs my body was throwing at me in stride, thinking I knew what I was doing, and that what I was doing was best. After all, it felt really good to run; I enjoyed my two-a-days (where I was lifting, and thinking I was making progress), and sweating helped me feel like I was in control of something. Plus, the longer I trained, the more I would allow myself to eat. My logic was totally flawed. Instead of eating to train, I was training to eat. I looked lean, but I wasn’t developing any muscle mass, I had no squat booty and every weight session was a real struggle. It got to the point that it wasn’t fun anymore.

It was only when I realized that everything that was happening to my body was a direct result of what I was not doing – feeding it properly that everything started to add up. I entered recovery and committed myself to eating every single day. I started slow – bumping up from 800 calories to 1000, and finally working up to 1800. I stopped tracking macros for a while because I needed to learn to be comfortable with just eating. I never stopped exercising or weighing things on my (many) food scales, but I stopped worrying if my split wasn’t perfect. And guess what happened? The injuries subsided, my cycle returned, and I stopped looking half-dead all of the time. Adrenals still shot, I started actively supplementing to combat the fatigue. In addition to DHA and a multi, I invested in a good B complex and started popping magnesium. It took almost six months to start to feel human again, and there were plenty of days when restricting sounded easier than progressing.

But on those sorts of days, I’d turn to the fitness and weightlifting communities. Motivation and inspiration abounds on forums and in social media. Powerlifting women and figure competitors became heroes for me because I knew that if those women could do it, then I could too. After all, I don’t lack willpower. But for so long, I lacked the ability to understand that calorie counting and macro tracking won’t do anything if I’m not eating … enough.

In my recovery, I realized that it was far more fun to eat to train than train to eat. I developed a keen and decided appreciation for lifting weights, and the heavier, the better. My mentality shifted from wanting to just look lean to wanting to be able to work toward elite lift numbers, and the only way to make that happen was to eat. So I found a great nutritionist, and slowly started working on getting back to a good split for my goals. We focused on keeping my calories where they needed to be, all the while giving my muscles the fuel they need to grow and pop.

So now I count and track, just like I once did. It’s really easy to become obsessive about it, too. There’s a part of my mind that wants to keep everything in perfect order, to control it to the point that I know if I eat an extra rice cake, the 8g of carbs are going to have to be put to some kind of use. I still spend hours crafting meal plans, playing with recipes to adjust my macros the way I want, and still have way too much Tupperware than I care to admit. The difference is that now my intent is completely different. I’m not as lean as I have been in the past. The number on the scale is way higher than it’s been in years. I’m still super aware of my body, but I’m no longer willing to trade actually being healthy for being lean.

So what if I weigh ten pounds more than I have in a decade? It’s ten pounds of serious muscle. My lifts keep going up, and my runs keep getting easier. I’ve finally come to peace with the truth that if I fuel myself properly, I can keep excelling. Strict dieting and constant restriction wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be. It was destroying my body, literally killing me from the inside out, and the aftershocks were evident in every part of my life. I’ve found a particular sort of freedom that comes from being able to lift heavy. I’ll probably always have this proclivity to control my intake. It’s just like any other addiction, and I’m always aware of the voice in the deep part of my mind that calls out to restrict during times of high stress. But then I look at my excel spreadsheet of my lift numbers (yes, I’m that much of a nerd) and see the progress I’ve been able to make. So instead of restricting, I fuel up and go lift something heavy.

Eat big to lift big.

Author Bio: Jessica Evans is a Cincinnati native who lifts, runs, and writes. She’s earned an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University. When she’s not chalking her hands or tapping words on a machines, she’s trying to perfect vegan mac and cheese. Her work has appeared in various journals and magazines and has a forthcoming chapbook that will be published in early 2016. 

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