eating disorders & disordered eating, by James Machin

guest writer James Machin* gives some nutritional advise and talks about the potential pitfalls of getting it all wrong.

Eating disorders have received a lot of press in recent years and we are well aware of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, the deadly trio of nutritional mental disorders.

Many regard this as a problem that only women are afflicted with, however that is a common misconception held by most. Men are just as susceptible to the pressures that modern media and society put on our personal image and looks, and that combined with the increase in people taking up sport and being bombarded with advertisements regarding nutrition products means that more and more people and making unhealthy changes in their lifestyles that they believe, incorrectly, are healthy.

Harvard University undertook the first ever national study of eating disorders which revealed that in a population of nearly 3,000 adults, 25% of those with anorexia or bulimia and 40% of binge eaters were men. However many believe that the figures are higher still with many men reluctant to admit they have a problem, in main part due to the stigma attached to the issue.

This article is about the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating, which is an issue that is rapidly increasing within the circles of amateur athletes and even pro’s that do not have the support of a nutritionist or councilor that can address the issue.

What is the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating?

We all know what the 3 major eating disorders are but disordered eating is not well known and in comparison to the seriousness of anorexia and bulimia is swept under the carpet. However I personally believe that disordered eating is the first steppingstone to the more serious disorders.

So what exactly is disordered eating? Basically disordered eating describes irregular eating habits, such as self-starvation, bingeing, purging and exercising obsessively without constructive rest or nutrition to maintain the body’s natural equilibrium. Although there maybe some similarities between these and the clinically defined “Eating Disorders”, they are not diagnosed as such, and are instead considered atypical, or sub clinical.

A classic example of this is binge eating, followed by the mad dash to the gym during and after the festive season, or the crash diets 1 week before going on holiday, all examples of disordered eating habits that many of us are guilty of. Not life threatening per se but still these processes put your body under enormous pressure that can cause depression or stress and, possibly later or through repetition, may result in more serious disorders.

As a cyclist and cycling coach I hear all types of fad diets or disordered eating habits that individuals are involved in, from crash dieting for a certain hill climb race to completing cutting out carbohydrates from their diet or chicken and broccoli diets in the effort to lose unwanted body weight. Another form of disordered eating and one that I was guilty of until studying the subject of nutrition and mental health, is using food and beverages as a form of reward.

As endurance athletes, cyclists need to pay particular attention to the importance of refueling and maintaining a balanced and healthy diet, including hydration. Those of us that have cycle computers that can give you an estimated calorific expenditure will know it’s almost impossible to replace in a ride what we have burnt, and will often use this as an excuse to binge out the following day with the inner monologue chanting “You did burn 4000kcal yesterday!”

Unfortunately our bodies don’t work like that and this is another classic case of disordered eating.

The facts remain that to lose body fat, the best method for getting it off and keeping it off while maintaining healthy energy levels and a stable mental disposition is a steady effort that can last months, if not years depending on the target weight, by adapting to a balanced, healthy diet, combined with a structured and consistent exercise plan. (Notice I don’t use the word training).

The difference between training and exercise?

Some of you reading this may have been on the receiving end of what you might think was me trolling you: a classic example of this would be a Facebook post such as: “Great training ride today with the guys, 120km with 1500m of climbing, Epic ride!!!” with me asking “What are you training for?”

Yes, training sounds more “Pro” than exercising but there is a danger in this mentality, and we’ll get to this in a minute.

As a coach and nutritionist I sit my athletes down and explain to them the difference between training plans and exercise plans and what they actually need.

Training is when you have a specific objective or goal and a time frame you wish to achieve that goal in. It is incredibly structured with several different phases in training that slowly bring you to the point where the objective is achievable. There will often be primary and secondary goals, with performance markers on route to give a clear indication as to if and where gains are being made or lost.

Exercise and nutrition are constantly fine tuned to meet the needs and requirements of the athlete and (a) clear, concise and easy to understand explanations as to why performance is not improving, or, if it is, how and why. The athlete is fully aware of what is happening.

Exercise plans are exactly that, planning when you can fit exercise in to your daily routine that more commonly than not is sedentary: it’s about changing daily routines to fit it in.

Remember, walking to the train station, taking the stairs instead of the lift or escalator is exercise and these can be fitted into your exercise plans.

So what is the danger of treating exercise as training?

Most cyclists will plan their riding around a single day on the weekend, trying to squeeze out as much as possible in the short amount of hours they are able to dedicate, while also participating in some healthy rivalry within their peers (groups).

Many will have done very little aerobic or anaerobic exercise during the week, and this puts an incredible strain on our bodies. Coupled with poor nutrition and hydration choices, this one or two-day training ‘binge’ can have a disastrous effect on our health, and unlike for instance at a gym, there are very few riding groups that can offer professional coaching, fitting and nutrition to their riders.

This brings me back to nutrition. On many a group ride I see riders pulling a plethora or gels, bars and powders from their jersey pockets or emerging from the convenience store with sports drinks boasting of amino acids or electrolytes. These all have a time and a place but in reality your weekend ride is not really the place or the best option.

Some Facts;

Power Bar

Fat: 2g

Carbs: 45g

Protein: 10g

Calories from fat: 20

Total calories: 230kcal

Medium Banana (118g)

Fat: 0.4g

Carbs: 27g

Protein: 1.4g

Calories from fat: 0.4g

Total calories: 105kcal


Or how about the famous Pocari Sweat?

Water, sugar, citric acid, sodium citrate, sodium chloride, potassium chloride, calcium lactate, magnesium carbonate and flavor.

You really think this is good for you?

It’s a fact that during times of intense physical exertion our digestive system is slowed, with the body’s primary focus on hydration and then energy.

So if you are solely hydrating with sugary drinks over the course of a 5 hour ride, consuming gels and bars and with the body’s limit on how much it can digest per hour, what do you think is happening to this excessive sugar intake?

Well, our liver can only process a certain amount; once it’s full it then turns the glycogen into triglyceride which is commonly referred to as fat and most likely than not is then stored as visceral fat.

You get home from a great ride totally spent and craving something sweet, so after knocking back a beer to hydrate you raid the fridge or pick up the phone for takeout.

Sound familiar?

Let’s reconsider the opening paragraphs of this article again

“disordered eating describes irregular eating habits, such as self-starvation, bingeing, purging and exercising obsessively without constructive rest or nutrition to maintain the body’s natural equilibrium. Although there maybe some similarities between these and the clinically defined “Eating Disorders”, they are not diagnosed as such, and are instead considered atypical, or sub clinical.”

Now ask yourself: do I have disordered eating habits?

So what’s the answer?

Well it all depends on what you are doing. Many of us whom should know better are falling victim to the marketing of bars, gels, powders and supplements. We believe the pseudoscience given by self proclaimed guru’s, that their methods and techniques will work when in actual fact with a small bit of research and common sense these can be easily debunked.

Now don’t get me wrong, legitimate sports supplements have a time and a place in a serious athlete’s nutritional inventory (notice I don’t use the word diet).

If you are training for a 100km road race then chances are you want to eat on the fly, trying to replicate exactly the conditions you will be racing to. So you would be eating a balanced nutrition plan to sustain this kind of effort and would have built up to this kind of ride.

In this case the answer is simple, you’ll want the convenience of pre packed gels and bars and a bottle of carb drink and 1 of pure water with maybe a pinch of salt to get you through it. But you’d also be carrying real food, bananas, rice balls or other nutritional alternative and more likely than not you would have a meal prepared for your return normally high carb to be eaten within 20 minutes to actually take advantage of how the body works and thus carb loading intelligently and effectively.

(That’s right, stuffing a high carb meal the night before a ride is not carb loading and all you are doing is again saturating your liver glycogen levels)

But if you are out for the weekend ride with your friend’s then this has been touched on several times: you should be eating healthy real food. Here in Japan we are very spoilt with the proliferation of convenience store chains in even the remotest of places, not to mention the amazing amount of vending machines scattered along the road sides and hiking trails.

The choices on offer are also incredible, however unless you have a fat ratio of under 10% these products designed to replace the lost electrolytes or give you that boost to perform better than before just aren’t needed, and your own stored body fat will pretty much do exactly the same.

Now as I pointed out, the amount of calories we burn on a ride can be enormous and we are never truly going to be able to consume 3000+ kcal over the course of a ride, not unless you have a support car or prepared to stop every 45 minutes and eat something. What we can do is aid the body in breaking down fat into energy, and plain old water is excellent for this.

If You feel the need for something sugary then a mix of 20/80 (100%) pineapple, apple or grape juice and water is everything your body needs and will help you recover from any hunger knock or bonk better than any other product on the market.

You want a long burn fuel? Bananas are the ultimate food for endurance athletes and have been used for decades. Another is the simple Japanese Onigiri (Japanese white rice ball with filling and wrapped in seaweed) which have been the go-to energy food since the 17th century, when warring Samurai would eat them on the battlefield. The portion size is perfect and gives you pretty much everything you need. A Tuna-Mayo Onigiri will give you 232 kcal, while the Salmon a healthier 192kcal. Buy two, one for now and one for an hour and a half later.

You’ll be surprised how much energy they give you when you are waging your own personal battle on some remote mountain pass.

Where do I go from here?

Many of us look forward to our weekend rides, we plan the routes, organise the meeting place and more likely than not plan where you will put in the killer attack that will blow away your peers on a certain Strava segment or signpost, but for most the planning and preparation stops there.

This is actually the time when you should be preparing your nutrition and hydration for the ride: again stuffing your face with pasta is not going to help here. But increasing the amount of food with low glycemic indices such as fruit and vegetables or, if you can get it, whole grain pasta or bread which have a minimal effect on serum glucose levels is highly recommended to people with sedentary life styles during the week.

Watching your hydration practices midweek is also beneficial as not only will it help with your digestion but will slowly increase your retained water, ready for the weekend ride. Again throwing back a liter of water in one go every hour on the hour will in actual fact have a negative impact on performance as it stretches the stomach and can lead to over eating.

Probably the most essential meal before a ride is your breakfast. They say eating a balanced meal 3 hours before a ride offers the optimal performance, however if you have a 6am start I doubt anyone has an appetite at 3am, and in this case rest is probably more important than getting up to eat.

Easy to digest foods such as fruits, yogurt and oatmeal (notice that again these are low glycemic indices) are excellent for pre-ride fueling. Coffee is also a welcome addition as the caffeine helps the oxidation of fat over a period of 4 hours. (8mg of caffeine is recommended, which is equal to about 2 mugs of coffee).

And finally something to eat like a banana while you go through the obligatory 30 minutes of “Faffing” at the meeting place.

At the end of the day it’s all common sense, the majority of people really don’t need the processed, prepacked energy fuels which in actual fact in most cases offer very little benefit compared to readily available food at your local convenience store. Stop and think too before you hit the fridge when you get home – optimal time to eat is within 20 minutes of getting off the bike, and protein and carbs are what you should be hitting.


*James’ Bio: Elite/Pro CX Cat1 Roadie, Professional coach, nutritionist and qualified chef (something very rare in nutritionists apparently) 2010 – 2012 winner of the Japan Road Series (JCRC) Winner of the 2012 Nikkan Sports; Tour Du Japon and 3rd over in 2010. If you wish to contact James please contact crankpunk

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

7 thoughts

    1. You’re welcome guys, I’ve found that my best performances has always been fueled by real food (non processed) and although I feel that gels, bars and supplements do have their place they are really at the peak of the food triangle.

      One of my favorite riding snacks are whole wheat banana and chocolate pancakes – chop up 70% chocolate (the higher the Cocoa % the better) and as many bananas as I can and add them to the mixture, some salt and milk.

      The mix is pretty thick and I normally make small discs about 3mm thick and 5cm across. Once cooked and slightly cooled these then get put in a zip lock bag and slung in the jersey pocket. Every hour I will eat one as I ride. They are very moist so easy to chew and swallow and keep you going on those heavy training rides.

  1. I love that term…”training ride”. I think it’s a short way of saying “I went out with the rest of my friends who don’t have the balls to pin numbers on and actually race either, so we “raced” each other in vain attempts to prop up our fragile egos.” As you so well put it…training for what?

  2. Great article. I’m many if the people you mention unfortunately. Pané y agua for me from now on.

Leave a Reply