"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ultramarathons and Orthorexia

Ultras do sometimes seem to be a parade of eccentrics. Though it is an extreme activity, most participants are surprisingly normal, yet each does have his or her quirks. Addicts in recovery are common, as are those with mild OCD. The most fertile field for unusual ideas for ultrarunners is food; Americans in general are obsessive about food, but ultrarunners especially so and this has led to popularization of some diets which may or not be useful to individual runners. Other than one's training, there is not much one can control in sport, but diet can be controlled and that I think is where some people get in trouble. They have control issues.

One of the most common things I see in distance runners is a "carbohydrates are evil" belief. The way it seems to start is that a runner eats a cookie (or bagel or slice of cake) and 10 minutes later feels hungry and has another and 10 minutes after that eats two more and then suddenly eats a huge amount of food. They then feel remorse and claim it's the fault of the food.

Here's how I see the same thing: The baked goods have a high glycemic index and should be eaten in small amounts. The one cookie may be as many as four servings (my standard calorie guide [1985] lists an oatmeal cookie as 52 calories. My homemade ones are 110. One from a bakery clocked in at more than 250). The problem was the serving size. No one eats only half of one cookie. If they did, however, they wouldn't crave the other half. The craving comes from the high glycemic load, which causes a spike in insulin level, which suddenly decreases blood glucose levels and makes one hungry. It's a vicious cycle. It's also incredibly complicated and people like simple answers... like not ever eating the food that caused the craving.

The problem is the "carbs are evil" idea. Or that fat is evil. Or that processed foods are evil. Or that omega-6 fatty acids are evil. By eliminating entire food groups from one's diet, one gains a degree of control, but one loses freedom of choice. One's diet becomes regimented (and less interesting) and one becomes ever more concerned with what one is eating.

I hear people talking about acid/base balancing of foods who know nothing about chemistry, much less have read the few scientific articles about acidity and renal function (all of which I find highly suspect) which spawned a dozen diet books. I hear people giving very good dietary advice based on ludicrous assumptions (Jillian Michael's new book is a prime example) and wonder if I should say anything if the result is good. Eventually, people are inundated with theories of what are "good" and "evil" foods and they either ignore it all or they try to follow them all.

Orthorexia is an eating disorder related to anorexia nervosa and is becoming more common. The disorder comes from eating only "right" (in Greek, "ortho") foods. A standard course is: eliminating a food group or two (veganism is common), then eliminating all processed foods, then eating only organically-grown foods, then eating only locally grown organic foods, then eating only uncooked locally grown organic foods, then eating only what they can be sure is grown correctly (meaning what they themselves have grown). Their days are spent making sure that everything they eat will be "right." They obsess over every bite of food as the rest of their lives spiral out of control. If they reach this point, a health problem usually arises, which they blame on not eating correctly, making them even more obsessive.

Why do I bring this up? Because I just read half a dozen different diet books (occupational hazard) and found myself thinking, "Oh, that's an interesting idea! Maybe I should eat less..." That's how it begins. I've had my food issues in the past and I have to be careful not to fall into such traps. I do a lot of racing partly because one cannot run one's best if one's not eating.

Focus on dining, not food. Enjoy what you eat. Now I'm off to run 100 miles - not that I'm obsessive, mind you.


Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

This post made me hungry.

As the sixth of seven children in the H'berg family, I spent my childhood in a never-ending hunt for food; I made friends with the local "weird" kids (no - I was NOT one of them) based solely on the fact that food, often very good food indeed (i.e., sugar-based stuff like candy) was readily available in their homes. (They and their families never seemed to eat it though, which is probably part of the reason I considered them weird - because THAT candy just LYING there in a dish in their rec room woulda lasted about a nanosecond in teh Heisenberg home, and that, my friends, is the way Dog in Sih Infinite Wisdom intended it to be.)

Needless to say, I was one fat little f*ck as a kid.

Portion control is still an issue with me. I still eat fast, as though if I don't wolf it down in seconds, some sibling will swoop in and relieve me of it.

Full disclosure: More often than not, I was the Swooping Sibling feared by my less voracious brothers and sisters.

Devon said...

Great post. It is all too common in our sport to see disordered eating and eating disorders. When I went to culinary school and was learning about nutrition and things, I became vegan and it was a slippery slope from there. Thankfully, I have learned a more moderate way (Michael Pollen's philosophy is a good example) and find it so sad that so many runners are knee deep in that disordered eating. I know people who routinely say they don't "earn" a cookie or food. It is ridiculous.

johnmaas said...

I know I don't have orthorexia. Glycemic loading, now that describes my eating habits.
Best of luck to you at Lean Horse, Steve!
You will do well.. I voted sub-24 and I think you can do it there. Just watch out for the part right after Mountain Trailhead (right by Crazy Horse). I got really sick there. Glycemic unloading, I guess.
Go get it!!!

arah said...

Great post, Steve. It has interesting timing with my recent post: I discussed some cookies I made for the Ragnar Relay run I'm doing this weekend: 75% of their calories are from fat (almond butter and a whole egg). It's a good thing that our van will have other more carb-y food, as well.

But oh, these are tasty.

I am curious about your thoughts on the Blood Type Diet. Some time ago, I had a massage therapist who tried to convince me that I should go on it, saying that it might alleviate some congestion in my knees/other joints.

Cheers- and good luck at Lean Horse!

Runningdoctor said...

If I may comment on the blood type diet. I'm a physician in a hematology fellowship and have gotten this question 5 or so times. I have done a little research to better answer patients.

The theory is, of course, absolutely nuts. It's never been studied scientifically and there really is no reason to.

Then why does it work, patients ask. Of course, people avoid certain foods, which , in inself, can cause weight loss. But, more importantly, the Hawthorne Effect takes effect, ie. what happens when a person starts examining his/her own eating. You could devise a diet called the Letter Diet, where people named Steve could only eat foods with the letters S, T, E and V and you would get the same effect.

Steve, I have an interesting question for you. It seems like a lot of strong ultra runners are fairly heavy. When you go from sprints to middle distance to long distance, there is a definite progression toward lighter builds. Then at ultras, people seem to get heavier again. Do you think it's better calorie economics (ie. slower metabolism) that becomes an advantage in ultras?

SteveQ said...

G., you remind me that I tell those who grew up without siblings that at Thanksgiving dinner, we made sure to sit next to the food we most wanted to eat, as passing was not going to happen.

RD, marathoners are "all engine, no fenders" and the less they weigh, the better. Ultras, especially on trails, require greater strength. And as I unfortunately discovered, gaining fat is common, mostly due to eating every day as if one were running one's longest run. There's a lot more variety in body types in ultras, but I think we tend to remember the ones who "don't look like runners."

Julie B said...

Yeah, not obsessive at all. Just like I'm not either :)