“Obligatory” running and “bizarre” food preoccupations

Yesterday Dispatcher Ed wrote about how the government is complicit in the burgeoning rates of obesity and overweight in the U.S. owing to its preferential subsidies of low-cost, high-energy foods. (I laughed at the “how many calories can I get for a dollar?” experiment because I’ve played this game myself, deciding at some point that even a marathoner could live on Little Debbie snack cakes — at the time, eight sold for around a dollar and contained about 300 calories each, mostly carbohydrates.)
I found this interesting because one of the louder claims at Big Fat Blog, where THOU SHALT NOT SAY ANYTHING BUT GOOD THINGS ABOUT BEING OVERWEIGHT is a rule for anyone wanting to participate, has been that the U.S. government has a covert aim of forcing everyone to be thin, which explains, in their view, why the Health and Human Services department publishes suggestions for getting active and is, they seem to believe, practially the only reason the Centers for Diesease Control exists. (No good denialist group omits the federal government from the list of putative conspirators).
This got me thinking about a post I made on a now-defunct blog I called “Cognitive Emesis” (and that it was; oh, it was) in response to a BFB reader who pointed me toward a 1983 study concluding that certain male distance runners were unusually concerned with leanness.
The first response of any criticism of fundamentalist fat activism by a thin, active person is generally of the ad hominem sort — rather than address the argument, the fat activist will suggest or state outright that her interlocutor’s entire basis for agreeing with any “overweight-is-risky” premise is a morbid fear of weight gain. It’s no different than a workaday religious fundie yelling about how atheism is wrong because, in a nutshell, if it’s true there’s no god, we can all commit mayhem with impunity and the world is suckier than it should be. As Sam Harris has noted, even if atheists really did hold the bleakest, ugliest world view imaginable, this wouldn’t make Christianity true.
Anyway, rather than adopt the same rickety stance as this commenter, Margaret (“You only like what this study implies because you’re fat”), or point out that even if 100 percent of runners had pathological relationships with food, obesity would be no less unhealthy, I decided to have an honest look at the article.
I’ve reproduced my two-year-old post below, and have included the comments that originally appeared there. In re-reading this I was struck, not for the first time, by the general wishy-washiness of behavioral research. I can agree, for example, that a lot of runners have “bizarre preoccupation” with food and are “compulsively” athletic — and see myself in a lot of what the authors describe, really — but good luck finding useful clinical criteria for these. Maybe the primary investigator was a lardass or something.

A few days ago, someone who discovered this funhouse thanks to Big Fat Blog asked me to comment on 1983 New England Journal of Medicine article by Yates et al. From the abstract:
“We have explored the apparent similarity between patients with anorexia nervosa and a subgroup of male athletes designated as ‘obligatory runners.’ Case examples are provided from interviews with more than 60 marathon and trail runners. Obligatory runners resemble anorexic women in terms of family background; socioeconomic class; and such personality characteristics as inhibition of anger, extraordinarily high self-expectations, tolerance of physical discomfort, denial of potentially serious debility, and a tendency toward depression. Anorexic women and members of their families are often compulsively athletic, and obligatory runners may demonstrate a bizarre preoccupation with food and an unusual emphasis on lean body mass. We speculate that both phenomena could represent a partially successful–albeit dangerous–attempt to establish an identity. These preliminary observations will require further study for validation.”
In addition, Margaret wrote on another site:
“I found it ironic that Big Fat Blog folks were being insulted by a marathoner (a popular sport for the compulsive male anorexic-tons of literature on this sport’s link to eating disorders/body image problems) Did anybody check out his page on training? Sad.”
I pored over my “training” page and assured myself there was nothing espousing the need for runners to maintain a low body weight. In fact, there’s nothing about food, shape or size at all — just training suggestions and experience. I really couldn’t understand why someone would characterize the whole ball of wax as “sad.”
Taking all of this into account, I was inclined to dismiss Margaret’s question as a potshot stemming from the stereotypical fattist reaction to any sort of criticism, i.e., assume (or at least imagine) that anyone challenging a “pro-fat” stance is operating from a rogue platform of emotional afflictions and character defects, chief among them moral superiority, anorexia, and general insecurity. Such an assumption, after all, provides a handy rationale for serving up ad hominem replies that ignore the challenger’s biologically and statistically based refutations of the dogmatic claims fattists make in attempting to uncouple obesity and medically demonstrated health risks. (Unless I decide to abandon this issue altogether, I’ll deal with this in detail in a future post.)
Ever the accommodating idealist, however, I thought a little more and concluded that were I rendered amnesic and shown my own site, I would see a blog peppered with rants about self-deluding fat people written by a 140-pound fellow with a distance-running obsession, and would probably raise an eyebrow or two myself as to the creator’s motives. Regardless of our respective agendas, Margaret has asked a fair and worthy question, forcing me to briefly table the salvos I’ve created in response to the increasingly unruly bullshit pouring from the fattist camp.
First, as Margaret now knows, I have, in my role as a Running Times contributor, already pondered at length the issues raised by Yates from both personal and observational standpoints. This article, now almost five years old, is one of the very first features I wrote for Running Times. (I’m not sure whether the existence of this piece indirectly supports my bland but pertinent contention that I’m not “out to get” fat people; it should be clear to readers familiar with my rants that I become frothy at all forms of counterproductive self-delusion, but BFB readers only know me as an anti-fattist.) I’ve been down the weight-obsession road with numerous people and I suspect this will remain a motif in my life as long as I continue to remain involved with distance running.
Second, although it is no secret that distance runners and other athletes (gymnasts, dancers, etc.) suffer in disproportionate numbers from eating disorders and their well-documented physical and psychological sequelae, I can state with confidence that — just as a relatively small fraction of overweight people are at extreme risk of major, immediate health problems or are perniciously self-deluding — only a small fraction of distance runners are “pathologically” concerned with their weight by any objective measure. Although awareness has certainly not slammed the door on widespread body-image and nutritional problems — particularly among college-age women — running as a community is no more blind to these dangers than it is to the realities of rampant performance-enhancing drug use at the elite level.
Does running “cause” eating disorders in the absence of pre-existing inclinations toward same? Probably not. Running certainly selects for thinness-obsessed people to a much greater degree than do activities such as bowling, ice hockey and sumo wrestling, and immersion in a competitive team environment often triggers the susceptible; however, most competitive runners — driven though they may be — are concerned first and foremost with performance. The size and shape of their bodies is a by-product of (and to a some extent a prerequisite for) their training, and for the most part, weight-related concerns revolve not around appearance but around functionality. But for some, weight becomes the point of focus — the end and not part of the means.
As for me, I know that if I quit running today and grabbed a bottle of vodka, I’d be down about 5 or 10 pounds within about a week and a half owing to dehydration and the loss of what is presumably muscle (which remains well-hidden when present). I concern myself with the numbers on my stopwatch almost daily, but rarely see numbers on a scale. I’ve never been overweight and suspect I would have a difficult time becoming fat by workaday standards. So although numerous psychological “needs” underlie my propensity for perambulation, the drive to maintain an ultra-low body weight is evidently not high among them.
I’ll offer this as well. I’ve often marveled at people who can come home from work, flop on the couch, eat, fall asleep, and feel absolutely no discomfort. This I could never do. Perhaps this is mainly the result of an inherent requirement to move around a certain amount every day in order to feel “okay,” or maybe it’s the simple by-product of a long-term running habit; either way, I wouldn’t be able to stand myself if I just sat around, whether or not I gained weight. At the same time, at various times and long before any of this bloggery reared its head, I have mentioned to my girlfriend and others that were I female, my blend of obsessive traits quite likely would have rendered me susceptible to becoming anorexic. Yet I’m glad for the stronger factors that cajole me though my version of life, as I reckon I’m in much better overall physical and mental condition thanks to my compulsions and my management thereof than I would as a couch potato. (This, of course, is somewhat circular reasoning, much in the spirit of a friend who once told me while in his cups: “I could never be gay because I’m too attracted to women.” That is, I don’t claim to have chosen the traits that make exercise both a given and a requirement for me.)
Regarding the 1983 Yates study, I have only read the abstract, so I am not sure how she and her team define terms such as “obligatory running,” “unusual emphasis,” and “bizarre preoccupation,” which from a clinical standpoint appear too subjective to be of much use. Of course, one could rightfully make the same claim about the term “overweight.” Also, issues of gender aside, I don’t disagree with the “bizarre” label — clearly, many runners seem to “run to eat” and not the other way around. I’ll point one last time at a hangout for runners with undisguised food hang-ups.
In any case, looking at both the fraction of runners who are indeed anorexic (or at anorexics in general) and the subgroup of overweight people who qualify as fattists, it is clear that these are not two sides of the same coin, as has perhaps been suggested. Both tend toward increasingly precarious states of physical health (particularly the anorexic) and both see the world in a distorted way. Both seem resistant to outside intervention, even that of a merely suggestive, not intrusive, nature. But unlike anorexics, fattists seem to be able to convince themselves in all seriousness that the reams of data undermining their claims of “normal” health are all fabricated. Even the haunting “pro-ana” sites I have seen imply a “f*ck it, I’m gonna die anyway LOL” attitude rather than fomenting a “when will those idiots out to get fat people learn?” credo.
I am friends with a number of runners of both sexes who have struggled with — and are in various stages of recovery from — anorexia and anorexic behaviors; none of them look back on their experiences with fondness or express any sort of desire to return to patterns they confronted only with great unwillingness, but certainly never sought to “accept.” I also know a number of once-fat people who admit to previously espousing a “fat-is-okay-and-there’s-nothing-I-can-do-about-it” mindset, but eventually changed their ways (and bodies) via lifestyle modifications; as with the anorexics, none of them have any desire to wander back up the path toward the place from whence they came or express any regrets about no longer being “fat-and-fit.” I suspect a number of the ardent BFB supporters of today will be the fat-and-no-longer-fat “obesity naysayers” of tomorrow.
I’ll put all of this in the context of my understanding of cognitive dissonance theory. Something besides a basic effort to maintain health and fitness compels “dedicated” or “hardcore” runners to get out the door for their daily mileage allotment. Whatever this urge represents, running brings such people closer in tune with themselves — it takes the edge off of anxiety and mundane job- and family-related stresses and provides an anchor in a world often fire with uncertainties. As long as the runner isn’t injured and is not forsaking objectively more pressing matters in favor of running, there is no conflict — only a sense of well-being.
Contrast this with the fattist, who is bombarded daily with unsavory messages both internal and external: fat is unhealthy, fat is ugly, fat is the essence of sloth. Some of these are legitimate while others are subjective, but all of them cause the fattist unrest. Having been convinced by whatever means that weight loss is not in the cards for her, the fattest, in her own quest to reduce cognitive dissonance, goes about constructing an alternate reality in which doctors are in cahoots with fad-diet peddlers, thin people are almost universally unhappy, and facts about health and medicine can be readily discarded if one doesn’t like their implied consequences.
Obviously there are key differences here. Runners’ chosen means of allaying cognitive dissonance — their “fix” — is, except in rare cases, of known physiological and psychological benefit and carries no societal stigma. Hearing the occasional cry of “RUN, FORREST, RUN!” from a passing redneck is not on a par with real or perceived rejection rooted solely in having an “unacceptably” large ass or gut.
Owing to societal norms, runners — though they, like any other batch of hobbyists, often cluster together socially — have no need to join what amounts to cult in order to force themselves to “accept” who and what they are. Such cult-groups, whose chief principles seem to be distributing blame, feeding off negative energy, and staving off various facets of the truth at all costs, arise from members’ inability to change something about their station in life and frustration that ensues as a result.
I think I’ve covered most of the bases of running-related concern to BFB folks. I’ve got some more stuff to post on the general topic of self-sustaining whining, but I may steer clear of the whole subject for a while.

“that anyone challenging a “pro-fat” stance is operating from a rogue platform of emotional afflictions and character defects, chief among them moral superiority, anorexia, and general insecurity.”
My response to this pro-fat view is that I can’t think of a single person I admire, or who has accomplished anything worth a damn, who would be considered psychologically well-adjusted in the way these fat happy folks define it. Christ, people in general are a f*cked up lot, and I think “general insecurity” has proven a more fruitful motivator for accomplishments outside of the damn herd than unmitigated self-acceptance. Shit, anyone with half a brain should never feel comfortable with themselves – that sort of contentment leads to herd activity. This is just the general trend to pathologize any sort of behavior that deviates from the norm or asks people to be severe with themselves. I guarantee the inner life of an anorexic is far more interesting and has more connection to grand themes in human existence and great literature than the self-accepting feel-good shit of the fat bloggers. F*ck, when I read this sort of plaint, I am reminded of Proust’s observation: “All the greatest things we know have come to us from neurotics. It is they and they only who have founded religions and created great works of art. Never will the world be conscious of how much it owes to them, nor above all of what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts on it.” – Marcel Proust in Guermantes Way, 1921
By Brain, at January 21, 2005 1:02 PM

I think the desire to be thin is more complicated than saying that today’s societal norms say thin is good, just like in the past and in some cultures today say that being fat is good, it is a much more complicated and very much more on a subconscious level than that. Humans like all living things have at their most basic level a desire to reproduce and that drives basic human behavior in an extremely powerful way. Like all animals, humans use their bodies as a way of showing of their desirability to mate, it’s what drives evolution. In places where food and clean water is scarce, being thin means that you don’t have reliable access to food and/or you are desired, being heavier is a sign of superiority in the sense that mating with them means availability of nourishment and that they are relatively free of disease as most illness causes the loss of weight.
In the US we don’t have that problem. Even the poor can afford food and clean water. Food, water, and shelter are the most basic needs of any animal. But when those needs are general satisfied, how does someone distinguish their superiority as to mate in the most obvious way? Remember, we are talking about very basic and subconscious instincts passed down though hundreds of thousands of years, you want to be able to show at a glace your desirability to mate.
Food, water and shelter are assumed to be taken care of in the US, so that really no longer factors into the equation, so what’s next? Physical superiority. Generally speaking athletes aren’t athletes because they are thin, athletes are thin as a byproduct of their sheer physical strength. It’s not a chicken and egg scenario, someone that is strong physically is naturally going to become lean, it’s pretty much unavoidable as long as they eat a well balanced diet.
So, the dynamic of the perception of thinness in the US becomes:
1. Availability of basic food, water, and shelter.
2. Physical superiority as far as endurance, general long term health and brute strength
3. Availability of a healthy, well balanced diet
An overweight person is perceived at a very basic level to be lacking 2 and 3, but not only that, it comes back to availability of food and clean water. If both are assumed to be readily availably, why are the trying to advertise their access to both? The fact that they are storing a lot of excess energy implies at a basic level that to them, the availability of both is not guaranteed, again, not something you want in a perspective mate.
People don’t want to accept that they are generally inferior because it means their chances of mating are less. Being that at the most basic level a human’s purpose is to reproduce, accepting that you are inferior means that there is a good chance that you will be unable to fulfill your most basic purpose of existance, not something that really makes you feel good, so what do you do?
That is where the fat acceptance movement comes in, what fat acceptance is really about is convincing themselves and others that they aren’t actually physically inferior and in-fact desirable, and thus able to fulfill their basic purpose in life.
The desire to make your life have meaning is what makes the ability to become incredibly delusional of the realities of being overweight possible, for without that delusion you are left with two choices, work to become physically superior, or accept that your life no longer has any real meaning. I’m not saying that the overweight don’t have meaning in life, but that is the subconscious dynamic of it.
By John McKee, at January 21, 2005 2:52 PM

Stay away from the topic? Damnit- no! What else will I read while I drink my slim-fast and get ready to go workout to rid my body of this fat?? First blog I have found that sarcastically, yet intelligently rips to shred the fatcamps whines and excuses about being fat.
Don’t go. sniff
By Santana, at January 21, 2005 9:10 PM

Sad if you’re steering clear, but I understand. I started reading this for its running talk, kept reading it for your insightful take on things… and the astute observations of Big Fat Blog (which I have been reading for some time whenever I feel like being amazed at the ridiculous things some people honestly think) have been very interesting. Keep up the good work!
By April Dawn, at January 25, 2005 11:41 PM

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