Disordered Eating, Nutritionism, and Running

A staple of running advice for 500,000+ runners, Runner’s World is a publication that offers insights and stories relating to racing, training, diet, gear, and more. Their columns, written more like tabloids and featuring blatant advertisements, advise runners on how to reach their 5K-personal records (PRs), what gear is best designed to take on certain elements, what races they should be traveling to across the country, what food they should be consuming to reach their ideal race weight, as well as checking in on what celebrities are hitting the roads and trails.

One example of writing that is obvious advertising disguised as advice for runners is their recent article, “Best Foods for Runners.” The article consists of one colorful page after another, each adorned with photos of specific grocery store items that you should stock up on to make the most of your meals, separated between such categories as : Breakfast, Fuel Up, Lunch, Snacks & Sips, Dinner, and Not-so-Guilty Pleasures.

While I appreciate the nutritional advice they are presenting to their readers – offering them proper meals to have either pre-run or post-run – there is a significant problem besides the shameless advertising.

My main concern with the article stems from the hypocrisy with its final section, Not-so-Guilty Pleasures: while the article aims to provide healthier, grocery store-based food for readers, it inversely encourages habits exhibiting characteristics of disordered eating.

Runners are notorious for battling disordered eating habits, and Runner’s World has written and featured a number of articles on the matter:

Disordered eating are eating habits that exhibit characteristics of fasting or chronic unrestrained eating, binge eating, skipping meals, restrictive dieting, and unbalanced eating. The latter two examples, restrictive dieting and unbalanced eating, are common dietary issues that runners might face at one time or another. Most of these habits start because a runner is trying to lose weight for vanity, weight for competition, or out of attempting diets that are supposedly beneficial for training purposes(say, going carb-free, fat-free, high-fat and high-protein, etc.).

A common issue for dieters, runners included, that leads towards restrictive dieting is the paradigm of nutritionism. Nutritionism, a popularized term by Michael Pollan in his book, In Defense of Food, is the idea that the “nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients, vitamins, and other components.” When applied towards consumption, it means that a person abiding by it will read food labels and evaluate whether the balance of micronutrients and macronutrients make it worth eating, e.g. “there’s not enough protein in it,” “there are too many carbs in it,” “it doesn’t contain enough zinc,” etc.

Runner’s World, which is supposedly so concerned with eating disorders and disordered eating, effectively promote the habits of them in this article. The Not-so-Guilty Pleasures section of the article provides the reader with “treats” that they can consume at the end of the day, while still providing nutrition-based justifications as to why it’s okay to eat them. Instances of this are as follows:

  • Justin’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups – …for your protein and antioxidant fix.
  • Alter Eco Dark Blackout Organic Chocolate – …that dark chocolate can boost brainpower and help your heart.
  • Edy’s Slow-Churned French Vanilla Ice Cream – Edy’s uses nonfat milk…
  • Bare Cocoa Banana Chips – …dip’ em into nut butter for a boost of protein.
  • Eatpops Glow – …for an immune-friendly dessert.
  • Hungryroot Almond Chickpea Cookie Dough – …for a nutrient-dense raw treat that tastes like real cookie dough.

While the ingredients might be more natural than Cheez-Its, Chips Ahoy! cookies, or Utz Potato Chips, justifying their consumption based upon nutrient-density is a flawed one. This kind of rationalization is the exact way in which they influence their readers into focusing too much on nutrients rather than ingredients. Rather than saying, “These foods are healthier for you because they are not as processed,” although in some cases they are pretty similar to other snack foods, the justification of their consumption due to their nutritional consistency is controversial. Habitual thinking such as this is what can steer their subscribers and readers, runners, toward disordered eating – neglecting foods on the basis of their nutritional ratios and percentages. Furthermore, it might influence other unhealthy habits, such as “justified/rationalized snacking,” wherein snacks can only be consumed dependent on if they have earned it or not, as well as vindicating specific snacks on the grounds of them having enough protein, antioxidants, so on and so on.

Disordered eating creates habits that are not only physically detrimental, but mentally as well. Runner’s World, in pulling straws at the nutritional information of not-so-guilty pleasures to thus justify their consumption, offers an inadequate attempt of supposed advice for their readers.

Furthermore, the “not-so-guilty” portion of the title is just as problematic, since it still asserts that there is some guilt to be felt for eating these products – just not as much. So feel free to eat any of the products they have advertised and offered you, just remember that you should still feel shame for having eaten them.

Practicing healthy eating can be overwhelming at first, especially if it is your first experience with the practice. While you should try to achieve healthier eating habits, you should not allow them to consume your life. Neglecting specific foods because of their nutritional components and justifying certain snack foods because of their nutritional “benefits” are just two forms of disordered eating, both of which can lead to further unhealthy habits. Instead, you should simply be attempting to eat more “whole foods” – foods that contain little to no processed foods/ingredients. If items on the ingredients list read as if they belong on a laboratory sheet, you should probably stay away from them. Once you start viewing food as numbers and nutritional information, it is no longer food, but more so science.

There is no secret diet, food, or food combination that is going to turn you into an elite athlete. Thus, keep it simple and try not to stress yourself out.

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