Athletes and Eating Disorders
Female and Male Athletes are Susceptible to Disordered Eating
While sports and exercise are excellent ways to improve mental and physical health, grow self-esteem, and build relationships, the fact that athletes carry risk factors for disordered eating is one that shouldn’t be ignored. What makes athletes vulnerable to eating disorders? What should coaches, trainers, parents, and peers look out for?
Athletes & Eating Disorders
Though it seems perhaps contradictory, the concept that an athlete – someone whose success relies on their health and well-being – is an at-risk candidate for eating disorders is an unfortunate truth. The perfectionist and goal-oriented attitudes that fuel many athletes are characteristics of those vulnerable to eating disorders. Combined with the intense pressure stemming from athletic competition, it is becoming increasingly common for athletes to be diagnosed with eating disorders. In a recent study of girls’ high school varsity sports, researchers estimated 18.2% struggled with disordered eating. Male and female collegiate athletes are also susceptible to disordered eating behaviors. According to this study from Ohio State University, subclinical eating problems affected 19% of female athletes and 12% of male athletes.
Though people tend to think that only female athletes develop eating disorders, there is much evidence that males are just as vulnerable. Specific risk factors for males and females include:
- Sports that emphasize appearance, muscularity, or weight requirements (cheerleading, diving, bodybuilding, or wrestling)
- Individual-focused sports such as gymnastics, running, figure skating, dance, or diving rather than a team sport like basketball, volleyball, or soccer
- Endurance sports, such as track and field, running, and swimming
- Training for a sport since childhood or being an athlete of elite-status
- An overvalued belief that lower body weight will improve performance
- An unhealthy focus on success and performance supported by those invested in the athlete’s performance
Things to Look For
An athlete suffering from an eating disorder is at risk for developing serious health problems affecting the heart, reproductive system, and bone mass. It is important for coaches, trainers, and peers to be aware of what to look for in order to get an athlete with an eating disorder the help they need. Symptoms you may notice include:
- Decreased concentration, energy, muscle function, coordination, speed
- Increased fatigue and perceived exertion
- Sensitivity to cold
- Prolonged or additional training above and beyond what is required by the sport
- Poor interaction with coaches and teammates
- Difficulty with taking days off
- Increased injuries
- Preoccupation with food – their own or others
- Ritualistic eating or avoidance of certain foods
As with many people who struggle with eating disorders, these signs and symptoms may not be obvious. Parents, coaches, and trainers should remain aware in order for them to find treatment as soon as possible if need be.
Starting the Conversation
Oftentimes coaches, trainers, peers, teachers, or other school personnel are one of the first people to notice someone may struggling with disordered eating or body image issues. If you find yourself in this situation, start a conversation with the person. Early intervention is imperative for minimizing the physical, mental, and emotional factors that are involved with eating disorders. Following are some tips as you think about approaching someone you think may be struggling.
- If your school or team has a policy, consult the policy for addressing concerns. When appropriate, approach the athlete’s parent(s)/guardian about your concerns first. Partnering with them will give the athlete a solid support system.
- In a private setting, start the conversation with compassion and willingness to listen.
- Let them know that you are concerned about them and specify why you’re concerned. For example, “I’m concerned about you. Over the past month, I’ve noticed that you continue to practice while the rest of the team takes rest breaks and refuels. This seems to be affecting your strength and endurance. Is there anything I can do to support you to get the rest and nourishment your body needs for this sport?”
- Ask for their feedback. If they do not agree with your concerns, let them know you are still concerned. They may say they are fine. Keep the option to talk openly; let them know that you are available if they do need someone to talk to or any support.
- Continue to follow up with support and encouragement to seek help. Offer to help get them the support they need individually or as a family system.
Although it can be nerve-wracking to have these conversations, it’s also really important to let those you care about know they have your support. Addressing the concern and asking them if you can help opens the door for an honest conversation. Sometimes it may take a few conversations for someone to acknowledge they are struggling or ask for support. So keep the lines of communication open. Minimally, you’re building trust, and if or when they need help they’ll know you are there for them.