Food tends to loom large in the mind of a cyclist. Most rides are carefully planned around a good tea stop and there is always that satisfying feeling of being able to tuck in, knowing you’ll burn off the excess. Simply by taking regular exercise, cyclists elevate themselves higher in the health stakes than a chocoholic couch potato.
However, cyclists are prone to eating disorders and unhealthy attitudes to food. The end result is poor nutrition from an unbalanced diet, which obviously wrecks all the hard work put into training.
Despite the massive choice of foods available, eating styles tend to fall into distinct patterns. These range from serious eating disorders to simply falling into bad habits. It is usually possible to identify yourself in one of these styles.
The work/food balance
Life is hectic for many people. We try to cram more and more into each day. Something has to give – and it’s usually our eating habits. A busy and stressful day at work releases a cocktail of stress hormones – including adrenaline and cortisol. These deaden your appetite and keep you on a natural high. You may grab a cereal bar to give you a boost to cycle home, but once you relax, and the hormone high wears off, your appetite kicks in.
Preparing a meal using good quality ingredients can be a useful way to unwind after a busy day – and means you have a healthy meal to enjoy as well. There is a lot to be said for slowing down, relaxing and eating a good meal in the evening.
Without the stress and activity of the day, this allows your digestive system to work well and you’re less likely to suffer from indigestion or bloating. However, if you eat a big meal and then extend it into an evening of non-stop snack food eating in front of the TV, you are likely to eat far more than you need. These excess calories are easily stored as fat.
The best way to change is to use food to unwind and relax, but then recognise when you have gone too far. Make eating more of a priority during the day to even out your nutrient intake. If sitting down to a meal at lunchtime is not an viable option, take a supply of nourishing snacks – dried apricots, whole almonds, smoothies or fruit yogurt drinks, bananas or peanut butter sandwiches made with wholemeal bread.
The opposite of using food to relax in the evening is to avoid food as much as possible. Anorexia Nervosa is probably the least common eating disorder found in cyclists, but it does occur. The disease is ten times more common in women compared with men.
In the majority of cases, sufferers tend to be high achievers and often from families where excellence is important. Most anorexics appear to be confident, focused and perfectionist: wanting to be good at all they do. It is a form of self-inflicted starvation and as a result, body weight drops dramatically. You would think that this behaviour is only found in someone with a morbid fear of gaining weight, but in fact it is triggered by many causes.
Underneath, however, they have a feeling of not being good enough. In their drive for perfection, coupled with a belief that they are not good enough, giving up food is a way of either achieving control (in a world where they feel out of control), or some form of punishment or escape.
Weight loss is the obvious physical sign, although some anorexics disguise this well by wearing baggy clothing rather than the usual skin-tight cycling Lycra kit. As they continue on a very low food intake, they will suffer severe constipation, poor skin, brittle hair, low energy, dizzy spells and feel very cold all the time.
The obvious treatment is to encourage eating, but the anorexic often denies that they have a problem. In any case, the underlying cause of the eating disorder must be dealt with first. This can be achieved with counselling and psychological support and there are plenty of patient professionals who can help the road to recovery – which often takes several years.