• Athletes with eating disorders tend to be very talented, hardworking people who ache inside and fail to see their strengths. Something inside them says they should always be working or studying or exercising. Taking time to hang out and chat with others makes them feel guilty. They need to learn being “human”—like the rest of is—is a more attainable goal than being “perfect.”
• Athletes with eating disorders commonly fear they won't be able to stop eating if they start, so they try to avoid eating. Some consistently restrict their intake; others yoyo between starving and stuffing. In either case, they endure not just physical hunger but also the mental anguish of feeling alone. It's hard to have much of a social life if you are afraid of (over)eating food.
• If the athlete does not want to eat with the team, nor join family meals, don't try to force the situation. Rather just acknowledge “It must be so hard for you when something inside you holds you back.”
• If the athlete starts talking to you about how fat she is, don't try to correct the misinformation because the athlete will not believe what you say. Rather, try to understand the turmoil. “It sounds like you are very unhappy with your body…” Allow an opening to share her concerns.
• If an athlete shares the dark secret of having an eating disorder, acknowledge the effort. “I know this was hard for you to tell me, but I am really glad you did.”
• On the other hand, if you want to confront the athlete who denies, let's say, struggling with bulimia, do not become a detective to prove him wrong. Rather, try to understand why the athlete hides this and has trouble letting you know. Is he trying to safeguard you from being stressed? Or does he feel ashamed?
• Telling an athlete to “just eat” does not solve the inner emptiness that is intense, enduring, hard to recognize, and hard to talk about. Plus, the athlete believes eating will make her feel worse. Recommend counseling, not as a means to “fatten her up,” but to end the loneliness of the disorder and to find inner peace. Just as it’s important to have a good coach to improve athletic performance, it’s also important to have a good “mental coach” (therapist skilled with eating disorders) to improve quality of life.
Beals, K. and M. Manore. Disorders of the female athlete triad among collegiate athletes. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 12:281-293, 2002.
Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels casual and competitive athletes in her private practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, new Food Guide for Marathoners, and Cyclist’s Food Guide are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. Also see www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com for information about her online workshop.