It’s been a while since I really discussed the progress from my disordered eating days. When I started this blog two years ago, I was at a turning point with my relationship with food, and was leaving some of the darkest days of my life. As a result of that, I wanted this “new” blog to be a space that held content relating to the better and happier things that were burgeoning at the time. I still wanted to talk about (the happy aspects) of food, but I also wanted to shift the focus onto a new hobby (running), and also use the space to describe my developing career in science.
But sometimes it’s okay to get a little personal. To go back and reflect. To share your progress, missteps, frustrations, and successes with others, because that’s what blogging and social media are there for at the end of the day. My goal with this post is to show that the “battle” with an eating disorder doesn’t just end. It is a process that requires reestablishing, convincing, conquering, and loving, among other things. The intensity can decrease as one steps more and more into recovery, but traces do and will always remain. After a certain point, it’s more about management than it is about cure.
When I got serious about running at the start of 2013, I was also reexamining my relationship with food: I had stopped limiting myself in regards to fat grams, allowed myself to consume more calories on special occasions/days of “strenuous” physical exertion, and even though I was still counting, I gave myself a newer, higher number that I thought would match the output of my newfound love running.
2013 and 2014 were overall some of the greatest years in my life so far. I was a lot happier in comparison to my first years as an undergrad…definitely. I was certainly in a better place, but in the back of my mind, I knew that I still wasn’t at the place with food and fitness that I thought I was. I believed I was in a healthier place because I wasn’t as strict on myself as in the past, but the restraints I did still have—though not too restrictive—were still at odds with what my body currently wanted and needed.
As I bumped up my mileage to the point where I could run 13 miles as my longest run, I maintained my daily intake at the same newer/higher level that I allowed myself when I first started my running journey. But when I realized that other issues were arising, I had to reevaluate the situation.
Let’s be frank. My periods had ceased for the most part—if not downright amenorrhea, oligomenorrhea was all too real. I was also still experiencing fatigue, food obsessions, and waking up some mornings around 3 or 4AM with intense hunger pangs. I think it was difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that the “new number” was now “getting old”, and that my ever-increasing physical activity required me to consume a number higher than what I thought. Perhaps because it was all happening quickly—and in the midst of other life changes like getting into grad school—is what caused me to push aside the seriousness of the matter.
I think it was also hard for me to accept the fact that I needed to consume more because I thought that on the days I did not keep track of calories (usually long run days, or at least once every 1-2 weeks), I was able to eat enough to make up for my weekly running output. Obviously things were still not adding up, since I still felt tired at points throughout the week, and even after eating the amount I thought I needed for the day, there were times I still felt ravenous.
Still, I continued to push these occurrences aside because I felt good for the most part. I gave myself days when I could treat myself for not only my physical feats, but for “eating well” over a set period of time, so why mull over it any more than necessary?
When I made the decision to train for a marathon, there was a part of me that became concerned with the 13+ miles not because of the time spent on the road and the physical pain that I might have to endure, but rather if I would have enough energy for the journey based on my current consumption levels.
I understood that I would have to take another look at my body, and a new “new number” could not be avoided any longer—no matter how much I despised change. Being a budding scientist though, I needed cold, hard data to convince myself that shooting for an even higher caloric intake would be okay. My body was in a deficit already, based on symptoms like those mentioned previously, so getting a professional’s opinion seemed like the way to get that real push I needed.
I decided to wait until my first semester was over in order to schedule metabolic testing. Call it an excuse if you’d like, but I thought it was the perfect time to get it done: right at the start of the new year, and right before hitting the heavy miles of marathon training. I was also mentally prepared, with my mind free from thoughts of school or lab for the time being. I was ready to hear the results, take a step back to reflect on them, and create a new plan that would make my body happy and put my mind at ease.
I ordered the resting expenditure and exercise expenditure tests, and found both experiences to not be as fun as I thought 😛 . For the resting expenditure test, I was instructed to lie down flat and still for about ten minutes. After that, I was hooked up to an oxygen mask contraption and was given a nose plug. Having to breathe with only my mouth through a dry tube did not exactly aid me when I had to go back into a resting state for another ten minutes, but I managed to get through the test without hating it entirely.
The exercise expenditure test was another story. Since I was getting evaluated for my expenditure while running, the technician had me do a warm-up on the treadmill. Now, if we could have done it outdoors, no problem, but a treadmill?! It seems like the longer and more frequently I run outside, the stronger my hate for the treadmill grows…but, it had to be done.
Before getting on the treads of monotony, I had to get my skinfold measurements. Seven areas (subscapular, tricep, mid-axillary, pectoral, lliac, abdominal, thigh) are usually measured, and then summed up to get a value that estimates body fat percentage.
Once I was warmed-up, and after a quick trip to the restroom, the technician started me off at a 12 min/mile pace. Every three minutes, he ramped up the pace until I was running an 8:34 min/mile as my “strong effort”. After cooling down, I was given a towel to wipe the drool coming out of my mouth once the oxygen mask tube was pulled out (so true, so embarrassing), and then waited for my results.
We first went over my resting expenditure results, which listed my VO2 at rest, respiratory exchange ratio, and resting metabolic rate. Based on all of this, I was also given a breakdown of my substrate utilization (what percentage of carbs vs. fat I use at rest).
The exercise expenditure results were calculated and graphed in an interesting way:
Not only was my caloric expenditure while running at different speeds calculated, but also the percentage of carbs and fat that I was utilizing. It pretty much summarized that the faster I ran and the more effort I exerted, the more carbs I used. At a 7 mph pace, I was running on 100% carbs.
I was also given a breakdown of my heart rate, VO2, and RER numbers while running at these different speeds.
As well as estimated expenditure values at low/medium/high efforts.
I was glad that the technician took the time to sit down with me afterwards to go over my results and answer any questions I had. He was able to conclude from my results that my RER was pretty low (most likely due to the years of not eating enough—even now, in more recent times, when I thought I was eating enough), and that my body fat percentage was veering on the low side of the ‘athlete range’. He added that this could be a good or bad thing based on one’s goals, and of course gender, but then went on to mention some studies that were done that showed the amount of calories consumed over time vs. amount of fat in one’s diet influences a woman’s “cycle regularity”.
Even though it was a lot of information to take in and consider, we were able to get back to concrete numbers. He recommended that I increase my caloric intake to build more lean muscle mass (obviously), but emphasized taking in those extra calories as fat and proteins (over carbs), based on the goals I had for my body and in running.
I would say that both expenditure tests (which cost me $200) were well worth the price, which I found to be on the low side compared to a lot of other metabolic testing centers I looked into. I got what I wanted—the cold, hard data. Now I just have to use it.
This experience really drove the point home that the body is a dynamic machine, and that based on what you have it go through or what you want it to become, its requirements will change. Everyone is built differently, and figuring out what the best things for your body are at a certain time is, in a way, a never-ending experiment.
Taking on this new, things-are-dynamic attitude is the next big step in my recovery process. Understanding that these numbers are not strict rules, but rather guidelines, is something I will also have to continuously remind myself going forward.
Of course, I predict that there will be days I doubt what my body really needs. Accepting that there will be days I can’t get in my recommended protein, or that I ingest “too many carbs”, is all part of the process too. As long as my goals are pure—to build more lean muscle and to eat enough for my activity levels in order to get to a desirable weight that promotes healthy “processes” and an efficient engine for running—and as long as I at least try, there is nothing more I can do but trust that my body will find its balance at any given time.
If you’ve ever had an eating disorder or disordered eating habits, do you find it difficult to talk about the current status of your recovery progress?
Have you ever been metabolically tested?