How to Put on Weight Safely

Q I need some advice. I’m a 15-year-old high school runner and I’ve been trying to recover from an eating disorder for the past year or so. I was previously overweight and sedentary but then lost a bunch of weight, was treated for my eating disorder, and am now recovering. Though I still have a lack of a menstrual cycle, and need to gain 1.5kg to qualify to be on the local track team in the spring, I am highly hesitant to do so. I’ve had pretty good times for my age (sub-20 5K), am one of the fastest on my team, and feel that gaining that weight would mess up the times, making me tire easier, thus making me slower. I am quite nervous about this, because I REALLY want to be able to keep up my speed, and even become FASTER throughout the spring season, and don’t know if it’s possible with the extra weight on me. What do I do to gain weight, and still stay just as fast? – JULIE


A I’m so glad you wrote in. Eating disorders are a tricky beast and I’m proud of you for being open to treatment and I’m relieved to hear you are on the road to recovery. It’s not always easy to get help with an eating disorder because, to the outside world who may not understand what you are going through, people would think “why doesn’t she just eat something already?” or “if she would just eat something, this issue would go away, simple as that.” But what people don’t understand is that eating disorders are not exactly about the food. In reality, eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or what is termed as eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), and binge eating disorder or even disordered eating (which is not necessarily what we health care professionals would consider a full-blown eating disorder but is a term used to describe abnormal or harmful eating behaviours that someone might use to lose weight), are complex medical diagnoses. These conditions have psychological aspects, nutrition components, medical factors and even social issues. That’s why recovery can take years and also demands a team approach; physicians, dietitians, psychologists or psychiatrists, and the support of family and friends is vital to a full recovery and preventing relapse(s).

It’s not known for certain exactly how many athletes suffer from eating disorders. Research suggests anywhere from 1-62 per cent of female athletes and 0-57 per cent of male athletes endure such conditions. As you can see, these are huge ranges! Why eating disorders strike one athlete and not another is not known for certain. Most experts agree that these disorders occur for many different reasons but usually involve an interaction between environmental factors (like demographics, sport subculture, psychological reasons and even personality) and genetic factors. Regardless of the reason why eating disorders occur, the health consequences can be quite awful. Nutrient deficiencies, poor performance, chronic fatigue, long term health issues and increased risk of injury are just a handful of the problems that can occur over time.

Julie, you noted that you’re worried that recovery will make you slower. So I feel compelled to tell you that when eating disorders first set in, some athletes report that their performance or race times actually improve, perhaps due to a hormonal shift or a psychological boost. But – BUT! – the problem is, this perceived improvement is short lived and eating disorders are, simply put, hazardous to one’s health, no matter how fast or fit you might feel. Eventually, if you chose to avoid recovery altogether, your performance would not improve because your body would break down as you’re very likely to suffer from stress fractures given the eating disorder and the lack of a menstrual cycle. Severe energy restriction or an imbalance in nutrients will, at some point or another, not improve race times because you won’t have any fuel stores to burn while training or racing, and you’re likely to be so tired or so injured that you can’t train or race anyway.

Julie, I don’t want you to be scared that you will slow down if you put on a few kilos. I’ve worked with quite a few athletes who have a history similar to yours and they found that when they allowed themselves more kilojoules and more nutrients, their performance improved, regardless of the number on the scale. That’s right, they found that even when they weighed a bit more, they actually ran faster because they could work harder at practice and they had more fuel in the tank!

You mentioned that your goal is to put on enough weight to make the track team. To put on that 1.5kg – and I know your goal will be to add 1.5kg of muscle – you’ll want to slowly increase your food intake by eating foods that are good for you and that you feel comfortable or safe eating. I hope you are working with a doctor or a registered dietitian as they can offer you personalised guidance, but in general, if you were to increase your current intake by 1045 kilojoules a day, you could put on 1.5kg in approximately 1 ½ months. Of course, if you increase your workouts at the same time, you’ll need to increase this number a bit in order to promote muscle building rather than breakdown. Remember, if you choose the right foods, these 1045 kilojoules will do more for your running than just allow you to gain weight so you can make the team. 1045 kilojoules from nutrient-rich foods like protein smoothies or colourful salads topped with lean meat or servings of low fat dairy will help fill any nutrient voids you might have in your current diet. Finally, Julie, please don’t worry that these 1.5kg (or even more, depending on your doctor’s goals for you) will slow you down or make you feel tired. I really believe that the opposite will be true. When you start gaining a bit of weight and reach a healthy level, you’re going to feel more energised and ready to get even faster as you become a healthier runner. – PAMELA NISEVICH BEDE

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