AAA Conference Presentation: Disjunctures Between Pre-Race and Post-Race Foodways and Practices of Triathletes and Long-Distance Runners

AAA 2013 Conference Lecture "Disjunctures Between Pre-Race and Post-Race Foodways and Practice of Triathletes and Marathon Runners

AAA 2013 Conference Lecture

I will be presenting with several other anthropologists on the ethnographic research methods we used in our foodways research at this month’s AAA (American Anthropological Association) Annual Conference in Chicago. These methods should help other researchers when they encounter discrepancies between what people say they eat and what they actually eat.   I will be talking about the surveys I used for my research on the food rituals, beliefs and post-race binging of competitive triathletes and marathon runners. This being my first AAA conference and first AAA session presentation, fortunately for my nerves, it will be before the Thanksgiving holiday.

The session where we will be presenting our food research methods is called Foodways in Discourse and Practice:  A Discussion of Ethnographic Methods.  It will be held on Sunday, November 24, 2013, 12:15 PM to 2 PM in Conference Room 4L at the Chicago Hilton. For more information about this years AAA conference, please go to the “2013 Annual Meeting Central” section of the AAA website.

My presentation’s title is “Disjunctures Between Pre-Race and Post-Race Foodways and Practices of Triathletes and Long-Distance Runners.” Below is an abstract (250 words):

Triathlete at the 2007 Carpinteria Triathlon enjoying a post-race binge.

Triathlete winner of 2007 Carpinteria Sprint Triathlon enjoying a post-race binge.

In this research project I discovered the multiple disjunctures between the pre vs. post-race foodways beliefs and practices of triathletes and endurance runners in California.  I also discovered the ideal body types and food beliefs of these endurance athletes and how these ideals are influenced by scientific hegemony and an American fitness culture of embodied elitism, health and morality. Using the symbolic interpretive technique of Lévi-Strauss’ binary oppositions to tease out “good/bad” foods and body types I analyzed how these ideals are actually employed in day-to-day nutrition and eating practices using Bourdieu’s practice theory and concept of cultural capital. In regards, to race rituals (and rites of reversal which occur during a race event for some participants) I used Turner’s theory of how rituals serve to reproduce the values and practices of cultures and maintain group solidarity. I also analyzed through self-reported symptoms of physiological stress response on how these rituals, which included binging on carbohydrate-rich foods, may be reinforced as techniques of stress hormone reduction. Research methods I used include participant observation—doing the workouts with my triathlete and runner informants and participating in two races, in-person semi-structured interviews, and online surveys. I found my nearly 150 respondents through the membership of two local competitive triathlon and marathon training clubs, informal networks of friends and friends-of-friends of triathletes and competitive long-distance runners as well as informal networks of online followers of a twitter profile which I set-up for this project. The results of my research illustrate how useful some of these “old” classic theories of anthropology still can be in current research of both cultural ideals, identity and as well as the biological effects/functions of nutritional practices.

Here is a copy of the Spring 2009 research survey that I used for my research on discovering the possible reasons behind the disjunctures of what runners say they eat and what they actually put in their mouths during a post-race celebratory meal: “Runners Pre-Race/Post-Race Survey” [PDF].

Here is a copy of my research analysis (un-published paper) of which my presentation at the AAA was based: “Post-Race Food Cravings and Food Consumption of Endurance Runners” [PDF].

The other presenters during this food research methods session at this year’s AAA conference have some great perspectives and methods to share from their own research areas. They include the session’s organizer PhD Candidate Amber O’Connor from The University of Texas at Austin and her presentation “Obviously Imperceptible: Identity and the Tortilla in Quinta Roo.” O’Conner applies Bourdieu’s practice theory to the complexity of identity formation in her ethnographic research in a Maya village in Mexico. Graduate student Tylor Short of the University of Louisville will show how to discover the reasons behind a consumer’s performance of morality-based food choices with his revealing research on public versus private coffee consumption using dietary recall surveys and questionnaires. All three of these presentations illustrate the importance of participant observation as an invaluable research method for verifying survey data. It was the observations of each anthropologist that revealed the discrepancies between what people said they ate and documented in the surveys they completed and the foods that they actually consumed–the reason for the discrepancies. This research methods session should be of particular interest to anthropologists working in the private sector as consumer research professionals in the food industry or in the public sector in the arena of public health research as well as anthropology instructors and students.

Why stress makes us sick and physiological and psychological stress-responses explained

According to Robert M. Sapolsky, “stress can make us sick (p.3).” His book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, explains what happens to humans and animals when they get stressed out from a physiological and evolutionary perspective that is both easy to read and scientifically rigorous. Why don’t zebras get ulcers? 
They don’t because they are adapted to what normally stresses them out: physical stressors such as getting chased by a lion or adapting to suboptimal calorie intake when they can’t find adequate forage. Unlike humans, they don’t routinely suffer from psychological and social stressors. Unfortunately for humans, we do suffer from psychological and social stressors, but, like the zebras, our stress-response is adapted to respond to only physical stressors. If zebras had to go to go war or worry about subprime mortgages, get a divorce, handle elder care and seek more job security (psychological and social stressors), they would probably develop ulcers, too. In this book Sapolsky combines the latest scientific research with humor and practical information, too.
Stress-responses are the body’s way of mobilizing energy using the endocrine system in order to cope with a perceived threat according to Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. 
There are three types of stressful threats: acute physical crises (like crashing on your road bike [happend to me] or breaking one’s fifth metacarpal while sparring in taekwando [happened to hubby]), chronic physical challenges (like making do with rice and water everyday for months like the Dalit kids my mother-in-law helps with her KIRF India foundation in rural Bihar, India or living the dulce vita as an upper-middle class gal on a starvation diet of cocktails and coffee drinks–and not dying) and psychological and social disruptions (stuff that runs the gamut from school or work stress, marital discord, elderly parent care, to being on constant alert as a soldier in Iraq or Afganistan…) (Sapolsky 2004:4). 
It is the last type of stress, psychological stress, that most people in industrialized societies like ours suffer from when they feel stressed. Unfortunately, our bodies have adapted to survive best when confronted with the first two physical types of stressers. This is why stress makes us sick. Chronic forms of psychological stress such as PTSD are a contributing factor to many of our modern ailments such as alcoholism, insomnia, heart disease, diabetes and depressed immune systems.
Symptoms of dealing with chronic psychological stressors are similar to the symptoms of dealing with chronic physical stressors. They include: elevated heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rates, a depressed immune system, a depressed sexual drive as well as a decrease in the rates of digestion, growth and tissue repair (Sapolski 2004:11). 
During chronic low-level periods of stress (like Finals Week or going through a home re-model that went south), sensitivity to pain is enhanced, insomnia is common and, sadly, for some, one’s appetite increases with a greater surplus of energy stored in one’s fat stores rather than spending it on good things like boosting one’s immune system. It really isn’t fair.
According to the latest research, stress makes “two-thirds of people hyperphagic (eating more) and the rest hypophagic”, according to Sapolsky (Sapolsky 2004:72). This is because different types of stress-responses affect the appetite differently. This distinction is important when it comes to my post-race bingeing research I mentioned in my previous posting.
When you are experienced acute stress, there are large amounts of appetite suppressant CRH and almost no glucocorticoids in your bloodstream (during the first moments of acute physical or psychological stress) and your appetite is suppressed. It is when the acute phase of the stress episode is over that the CRH in the bloodstream returns to normal. However, elevated glucocorticoid levels remain in the bloodstream for a while or are secreted by your endocrine system in response to “frequent intermittent stressors” such as psychological stresses and this increases appetite. 
Not only do people after an acutely stressful event eat more, they crave sweets according to the research of Elissa Epel of UCSF (Sapolsky 2004:76). And, what has a more pure form of sugars than alcoholic beverages? Stress can induce one to want to drink more than usual.
Saplosky emphasizes this point when he writes, “Glucocorticoids not only increase appetite but, as an additional means to recover from the stress-response, also increase the storage of that ingested food (Sapolsky 2004:76).” There you have it: Stress makes you fat.
Now, if you’re thinking “That’s me!” when it comes to craving sweets when stressed, I’m with you 100%. When it comes to chronic low-grade stresses, or that happy period of period of time after an extremely  stressful incident, you practically have to lock me out of my kitchen to keep me out of the cookies, corn chips and gin and tonic. I’m so predictable. But so are so many of my fellow humans at Dargin’s on a Friday or at the Pierpont Racquet Club (a health club mind you) buying pitchers of beer for each other after a stressful week working and working out.  
Personal Example: 
Two weeks ago, during Finals Week, the more I stressed, the more I craved sweets and the more I ate them. And, the more fat that seemed to be stored in my body as my Lucky jeans got tighter and tighter the more I stressed about that, too. On my last day of finals,  after a week of staying up late studying and stressing  AND not fitting in my favorite jeans, I got more stressed out, thereby releasing more of those nasty appetite enhancing glococorticoides in my body. Next thing I knew, I was famished for that bag of Mission Corn Chips in the kitchen and another fresh cinnamon roll from Saturday’s farmers’ market. For a week, around and around the stress cycle went pushing me closer and closer to the adult-onset (type-2, non-insulin-dependent) diabetic lifestyle: over-eating, physical inactivity and chronic stress (Sapolsky 2004:66).
Fortunately, Finals week was only a week. I’m happy to report that my jeans are fitting a little bit better and I’ve worked out every day since my last final. Thank goodness.
🙂 A
Sapolsky, Rober M. 
2004 Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition, New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.