Whether you use a bike to travel to work or aim for a personal best at each race meeting, cycling is good for your health. But do your eating habits also match up to this healthy, outdoor image? Do you eat to cycle, or cycle to eat?
I heard recently about a keen cyclist who had suffered a mild stroke. He recovered well but the part of his brain affected by the blood clot was that associated with the taste mechanism. His taste buds were fine, but the signals they sent to the brain were not getting through. He could eat and digest food normally, but he could not taste anything. As a result he couldn’t be bothered with eating. Not surprisingly he lost weight, muscle strength and showed initial signs of vitamin deficiencies.
From this experience, he realised how important the taste and flavour of food was to him. He really enjoyed eating until he could no longer appreciate the subtle seasonings and aromas. Finally, he rediscovered his enjoyment of food by using his memory. He remembered his favourite foods and would link his memory of the flavour with the colours and textures he could still appreciate.
What does food mean to you?
Food is so much more than re-fuelling the body. We eat for so many more reasons than simply because we are hungry. There are plenty of health-conscious cyclists who specifically seek out good quality food.
In theory, regular exercise and eating well go together. However, there is also a dark side to eating habits. Ironically, many people who exercise regularly also have disordered eating patterns. The determined, competitive cyclist may also carry some compulsive characteristics into their food choices. Others may see cycling as a means of burning off the excess calories from junk food.
For some, there is a definite fear of food. Mealtimes and the struggle to eat, or not eat, go far beyond the desire to lose a few pounds. In these individuals, their relationship with food is far more destructive than healthy.
Take a look at the fitness spectrum and you’ll find the overweight people at one end and the ultra fit at the other. But they share a common bond in that most are preoccupied with food. There is a fine line between being conscientious about what you eat and the flip side of an unhealthy attitude to food. For some people, this can simply develop into poor eating habits. Although human beings don’t relish change, a habit is something that can be changed relatively easily, with a bit of effort and support.
Food can also become a tool, a weapon or a crutch to help you cope with issues of body image, self-esteem or the deep psychological angst when you question your own self worth. If food is not your first choice as a crutch, then alcohol, drugs or smoking are alternatives. However, it is a cruel world because when you choose food to help you grapple with day-to-day trials and traumas, life becomes full of contradictions. You can give up alcohol, drugs, smoking and you can even survive without your daily cycling fix — but if you don’t eat, you eventually die.
Some people have desperately complex issues with food; others have a less traumatic relationship. But however difficult the association, and for whatever reason, you don’t have much choice but to face up to the problem several times a day, every day of your life and this can be an enormous challenge for some people.
The term ‘eating disorder’ is very vague and suggests that there is only one disorder and only one cause. The reality is that there are three basic categories of eating disorder: anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating. While each has its features, a person does not need to demonstrate all of these to have a problem. Any group of symptoms that disrupts an individual’s lifestyle and/or their health represents a problem.
You might think that a professional cyclist, with a punishing training and competition schedule, would have enough on their mind without suffering from disordered eating habits — but they do. Along with elite athletes, jockeys, gymnasts, dancers and rowers, cyclists are also prone. Lesser mortals who don’t get paid to cycle but still take their sport seriously are not exempt, either.
The good news is that once you can recognise what food means to you, it is possible to take control of your eating habits… and make some positive changes.