Eating Disorders in Athletes: The Good News

Yes, there is good news about eating disorders. You, as a friend, parent, and coach, can help prevent them in young athletes. But before we get to that good news, let's take a look at the ugly stuff: Too many athletes (of all ages) struggle with food. Some have disordered eating patterns; others have outright eating disorders.

A Norwegian study shows that 14 percent of elite female teen athletes have developed an eating disorder by the ages of 15 and 16, as compared to only 3 percent of their non-athletic peers. Among older athletes, most report having started dieting and developing an eating disorder during puberty or adolescence. (You know, when at age 12, your parent suggested you go to Weight Watchers?)

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While the prevalence of eating disorders is higher among elite athletes than non-athletes, and higher in females than in males, the runners, dancers, gymnasts and others who compete in weight-sensitive sports are the most vulnerable.

The Ugly Stuff

Eating disorders are harmful—An eating disorder is a psychological diagnosis—not a nutritional diagnosis, even if the symptoms show up in food-related issues. Eating disorders often start at the time of puberty, when the body is changing and maturing. The skinny little runner who starts to mature and lay down some body fat (a normal part of puberty) can feel out of control, imperfect, and scared that she'll get fatter and fatter and fatter. 

Add in a critical comment from a parent, coach, or teammate ("Maybe you should lose a little weight.") and the kid believes she's not good enough. The "simple" solution is to eat less and exercise more-but that can become a vicious cycle of restricting (anorexia), restricting/bingeing (bulimia), or other variations of obsessive dieting.

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Weight issues tend to be "I'm not good enough" issues. Feeling imperfect or out of control is an unhappy place to live, so an athlete might distract his or herself from feeling that discomfort by keeping busy tracking calories, exercising to burn fat, and obsessing about what, when and how much to eat.

Food-thoughts can occupy 99% of the day, leaving little time or energy to deal with the real issue: poor self-esteem and why her or she doesn't feel good about themselves.

To every athlete's detriment, dieting and/or restricting food can hurt the body's ability to function normally, as commonly noted by feeling cold and tired all the time, and in women, ceasing to have regular menstrual periods. Bones become weakened, stress fractures occur, and osteoporosis appears too young. Future infertility can be a sad consequence.

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