Balancing diet, exercise often a struggle

Updated: October 24, 2008, 8:50 AM ET
By Christopher Parish |

Independence (Thompson's Station, Tenn.) senior Kathy Kroeger has always been small. And she's always been fast.

[+] EnlargeKathy Kroeger
Courtesy John NepolitanKathy Kroeger thought she needed to lose weight to be at the top of her game.

But for a while, the 2006 Foot Locker national champion thought there needed to be a correlation between the two. "I wanted to be as fast as possible," she says. "So I thought I had to be as light as possible."

Throughout the duration of her championship season, Kroeger burned hundreds of calories per day while training but hardly replaced them, dropping down to 85 pounds by the end of the season.

Then between cross country and track campaigns, Kroeger went to her doctor for a routine physical. She left in tears.

"My doctor said that I was far too lightweight," she says. "I wasn't getting enough calories to meet my exercise. He told me to sit out that track season and gain 20 pounds if I wanted to be healthy again."

In hindsight, Kroeger admits something was off even if she says it wasn't an eating disorder. "I don't think it went that far, but I definitely had a problem," she says.

While Kroeger was able to spot her problem quickly with the help of a doctor, many high school girls aren't as fortunate.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), nearly 10 million females in the U.S. suffer from eating disorders and 40 percent of newly identified cases of anorexia are found in girls ages 15-19.

What's scary is those numbers don't even tell the entire story.

"Anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness," says Lynn Grefe, CEO of NEDA.

"The exercise piece of this is pretty dangerous," she adds. "I know of a family who had to take turns doing watch at a child's door because that's how she was expressing her eating disorder -- through exercise. A lot of these people wouldn't say it's an eating disorder, but remember it's not about the food -- it's about control and controlling that weight."

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The control aspect caused Cypress Bay (Weston, Fla.) senior Mariana Lucena the most grief. Lucena now admits she was anorexic as an eighth-grader, but when she battled the illness it wasn't as easy to come to grips with.

"It was a strive for perfection," she says. "When you fail, all you want to do is punish yourself. That's where it started. My parents used to tell me, 'You're skin and bones,' but when I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a not-skinny me."

Lucena was always cold. Even in the middle of the humid Florida summers, she'd wear jeans and long-sleeved shirts or sweaters. She was always tired and felt terrible.

At one point, Lucena dropped down to 65 pounds. She was eventually admitted to a hospital, where she was forced to stay for 10 days. Doctors fed her through a tube in her throat. "I probably gained 10 or 15 pounds," she says. "But when I got out, I still rejected food."

[+] EnlargeKathy Kroeger
Courtesy Victah SailerAfter sitting out for 2½ months, Kroeger is competing at a healthy weight.

It wasn't until a family vacation to Tennessee when something -- she still doesn't know what -- finally clicked. Lucena started eating normal again and regained some confidence. She wanted to focus her newfound energy on something productive once her health returned, so she decided to run.

Family and friends were initially hesitant to let her, fearing Lucena would fall back into a cycle of trying to lose weight. So she made a deal with her parents.

"I had to gain weight if I wanted to run," she says. "That made it hard. It's kind of two extremes. But I committed myself to pursuing what I love and gaining weight at the same time."

Lucena ate constantly, and it worked. Since then, life has never been better.

"I feel amazing," says Lucena, who now weighs a healthy 110 pounds and is one of Florida's top runners. "I am so happy. Every day I kiss my dog and I hug my mom. Part of me is glad I went through this process. I feel so much stronger and more confident."

Like Lucena, Kroeger has recovered fully. But she had to miss her sophomore track season to do so.

For 2½ months, Kroeger ate as much as humanly possible while her teammates and rivals continued racing. Kroeger avoided desserts and high-calorie foods before her doctor's orders. Now all of a sudden she was eating all sorts of cheeses, meats and granola.

"If you're not providing nourishment, you're not feeding your heart, your kidneys -- everything suffers," Grefe says. "It's extremely dangerous."

The 2½-month break didn't slow Kroeger down much at all. As a junior, a much healthier, 110-pound Kroeger won the Foot Locker South Regional and finished second at the National Championship.

Now a senior, Kroeger is looking to add a second Foot Locker national title to her resume.

Lucena is also hoping to qualify for nationals this fall, though she'd settle for something else.

"I wish I could talk to every girl who's dealing with this right now," Lucena says. "I wish I could tell them that their choices could put them in a death bed."

Christopher Parish covers high school sports for