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Athletes and Eating Disorders


Sports that require weight control and/or thinness can place their participants at risk for an eating disorder. There is a significant amount of pressure placed on athletes to perform at the highest level - at all costs. The dangers of this mindset can be enormous. Coaches and trainers must be informed and alert to the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in their athletes. Those closest to the athlete are in a unique position to provide positive guidance and promote healthy body image and self-esteem. While there are particular sports that place athletes at a higher risk, it is important to always be conscience of the messages we present our young male and female athletes.

Examples of "High Risk" sports:
Body Building
Figure Skating
Long distance running
At Risk Facts for Athletes:
Perfectionistic tendencies, competitiveness, and fear of failure
Pressure from coaches and parents
Strong desire to please coaches and judges
Misconceptions about body size and shape as it related to "peak performance" (i.e. weight loss will enhances one's performance, lean is mean, body fat is unacceptable, etc.)
Over-emphasis or focus on external appearance (i.e. costumes uniforms, etc.)
Critical eye of judges and subjective nature of some judging in competitions (i.e. judging on technical and artistic merit, etc.)
Media messages about health and body shape size (i.e.-thin means healthy; thinness means success, etc.)

Medical Issues:
Electrolyte imbalances
Cardiac arrhythmia and increased risk of cardiac arrest
Severe dehydration and fatigue
Muscle weakness and loss
Kidney failure
For Coaches:
Educate oneself on the dangers of eating disorders (i.e. what are signs and symptoms, what are the current resources in place at the school, community, etc.)
Explore your own attitudes toward weight, dieting, body image, etc.
Watch for signs and symptoms of eating disorders; prevention and recognizing symptoms in early onset are vital keys to avoiding serious medical and psychological problems.
Emphasize improving performance and mental and emotional strength versus weight.
Recognize when training routines are obsessive and unhealthy.
Look for signs in which an athlete may be turning to extreme or drastic measures to be thin or succeed in their sport at the risk of their health.
Consult with and use nutrition experts to educate athletes on healthy eating.
Focus on the importance of eating properly.
Encourage counseling when needed.
Be supportive. Do not be critical if an athlete does come forward with their problem.
Praise the athlete and be proud of them no matter what place they finish in a competition.
When approaching an athlete you suspect may have an eating disorder do so privately. Provide evidence of your concerns with specific behaviors you have noticed. Reassure the athlete that you want to assist in any way you can. Alleviate any concerns the athlete may have about losing their position on the team, etc. Do not back down when you have concerns, tell the athlete you feel the matter needs to be addressed with someone who understands eating disorders. Do not be afraid to make this a requirement - it can save a life! Adapted from Eating Disorder Awareness and Prevention, EDAP (1998), www.edap.org, Athletes and Eating Disorders.

Increased number of athletes plagued by eating disorders

Eating disorders are a serious psychological condition that can have long-term implications for an individual.

Eating disorders are not gender specific, however, they are more prevalent in women and particularly adolescent girls. Most recently, an increasing number of athletes - those facing peer, societal, and personal, pressure to run faster, swim harder and jump higher - have been plagued by this disease.

It is estimated that eating disorders affect a whopping 62 percent of athletes involved in organized sports. Athletes at greatest risk are those involved in “appearance sports” such as cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming, diving and dance. However, incidence of eating disorders also occur in endurance sports that emphasize low body weights such as running and cycling and sports that have weight classifications such as wrestling, and crew.

Due to the secretiveness and shame associated with eating disorders, many cases go unnoticed or unreported. In fact, in some cases, where parental pressure to succeed is so strong, disordered eating is actually condoned.

Many people regard anorexia nervosa, a disorder in which people refuse to maintain a minimally normal weight, coupled with an intense fear of gaining weight, despite being underweight, as the standard for eating disorders. There are, however, much more prevalent and far less obvious disorders that regularly plague athletes. These include bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, body dysmorphic disorder and overtraining.

What motivates you when it comes to fitness?

While these disorders are often so well concealed and the symptoms are mistaken as athletic burnout, it is prudent to be alert and aware to key indicators of a problem. Warning signs include restrictive dieting, purging through vomiting, diuretics or laxatives, withdrawal from teammates, chronic fatigue, excessive exercise outside of training, inability to complete workouts, weight loss, loss of concentration, mood changes, fainting, dizziness, light-headedness and decreased stamina.

Serious health consequences are associated with eating disorders and are especially detrimental in an athlete. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, elevated triglycerides, diabetes, gallbladder disease, electrolyte imbalances, ulcers, pancreatitis, tooth decay, muscle loss, dry hair and skin, and loss of bone density.

Athletes face an even greater risk of disordered eating than the regular lay person due the heightened stress and pressure they place on their bodies on a daily basis. The strenuous nature and physical demands of their training, coupled with the stress of an unhealthy diet, puts them at an elevated risk for sudden death from cardiac arrest or organ failure.

Prevention of eating disorders is the key to success and that starts at home. Adopting and committing to a healthy lifestyle is first and foremost. This means eating a regular well-balanced diet, exercising and embracing a ‘fitness is fun’ attitude rather than emphasizing body size, shape or weight.

-- Angie Ferguson is an exercise physiologist from Fort Myers. She is a USA Triathlon Advanced Level 2 coach, Ironman Certified coach, Slowtwitch Certified coach, USA Cycling coach and has a Specialty in Sports Nutrition certification. For more training tips, read her blog at www.triathlontrainingisfun.com or contact her at www.gearedup.biz.

We cannot diagnose or treat eating disorders by email, but we can send you information and assist you in finding resources. Information provided by the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center is not a substitute for medical treatment or psychological care. It is vital that you talk with your physician and a qualified mental health professional regarding eating disorder symptoms and treatment.
While EDReferral.com includes articles and links to sites which provide additional information on eating disorders and related topics, EDReferral.com does not endorse or recommend any site, product or service provided on these links.

In Partnership with the American Eating Disorder Association- -SINCE 1999