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Athletes & Eating Disorders

The incidence of eating disorders among athletes continues to rise.

Athletes and dancers may face a greater risk for the development of an eating disorder like Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating. There are growing numbers of athletes with eating disorders, especially in "thin body" sports. It is speculated that up to 62 percent of women who participate in "appearance sports" such as diving, figure skating, gymnastics, and dancing are are battling an eating disorder. High incidence of eating disorders also occur in endurance sports that emphasize low body weights such as running, cycling and cross country skiing; sports that have weight classifications such as wrestling, horse racing and crew; and sports were the clothing is revealing such as swimming, volleyball, track, cheerleading and bodybuilding.

Many of the attributes that are part of the formula for a successful athlete may predispose them to the development of an eating disorder such as Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating. Athletes' personalities tend towards being perfectionistic, overachieving, competitive, compulsive and people pleasing. These traits, when focused on the body, can have devastating consequences. Athletes, and often their coaches, are preoccupied with controlling body weight and shape to enhance athletic performance. Weigh-ins and body fat analyses are often a weekly occurrence. The worst part is that these activities are usually done in a public setting with personal weights revealed to the entire team and staff. This can cause embarrassment and foster competition among team members to obtain the lowest weight through dangerous dieting methods. Teammates and coaches are significant people in athletes' lives and can have an inordinate amount of influence. A recent study reported that 75 percent of gymnasts who were counseled by their coaches that they needed to loose weight, resorted to dangerous weight control measures.

Judges in sports where athletes are evaluated on technical and artistic forms have admitted they consider thinness to be an important factor in deciding excellence and have even told athletes they should loose weight to achieve their athletic goals. This was the case with the elite gymnast Christy Henrich, who stated that a United States gymnastic judge told her she was too fat and needed to loose weight if she wanted to make the Olympic team. Christy felt this statement was the impetus for her to severely restrict her food intake in order to make weight. At the age of 22, Christy Henrich died as a result of her eating disorder. When their bodies are being constantly assessed personally and by coaches, judges and spectators, it is understandable why so many athletes fall prey to disordered eating like Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating.

When athletes diet, they often go to extraordinary lengths to reduce their percentage of body fat. Severely restrictive dieting is the most common method, but many also engage in the purging methods of vomiting, laxative abuse and diuretic abuse. Restricting food intake can result in fatigue, dizziness, muscle wasting, stress fractures, depleted food stores, weakness and fainting. Initially competitive performance may be unaffected but ultimately the athlete's performance and health will significantly decline. Because of the addictive nature of eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating, even though their performance may suffer, many eating disordered athletes find it difficult to stop their disordered eating.

Long term and serious medical complications include cardiac problems and what is known as the "Female Athlete Triad." The Triad refers to disordered eating, loss of menses, and osteoporosis. The resulting medical complications are often permanent and irreversible. Bone loss starts as soon as six months from loss of menstruation. A study found that anorexics were seven times more likely to develop stress fractures as a result of their bone density loss. This not only has immediate consequences on their performance but also long term consequences such as chronic joint problems and increased risk of fractures for the rest of their lives.

Coaches, parents, teammates and friends need to be alert to the early signs of eating disorders among athletes. Often, the eating disorder is well concealed, and the symptoms are misinterpreted as athletic burn out. Any of the following warning signs being present should be a cause for concern:

  • Restrictive dieting
  • Stating feeling fat despite being at weight or underweight
  • Purging through vomiting, diuretics or laxatives
  • Withdrawal from teammates
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Changing to mainly wearing sweats during workouts
  • Excessive exercise outside of routine training periods
  • Inability to complete workouts
  • Avoiding dressing in front of teammates
  • Avoiding eating in front of others
  • Resistance to recommendation for weight gain
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of menses
  • Loss of concentration
  • Dehydration
  • Pale, dry skin
  • Hyperactivity
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Frequent use of restrooms
  • Cold Intolerance
  • Changes in mood
  • Isolation
  • Depression
  • Fainting
  • Light headedness
  • Decreased stamina

Because of the unique situation and influence of coaches, athletic trainers and teammates, they can help prevent eating disorders among athletes. To accomplish prevention, the following should be kept in mind:

  • Recognize and educate athletes on the symptoms and warning signs of eating disorders such as Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating.
  • Educate athletes on the physical risks of maintaining a low body weight.
  • Resist the urge to delay seeking advice from a proven bulimia, overeating or anorexia program treatment professional.
  • Do not overplay the impact of weight on athletic performance.
  • Promote total and healthy nutrition.
  • Eliminate public weigh ins and body fat analyses.
  • Provide a resource for emotional counseling.
  • Eliminate ridiculing or flippant remarks about body shape or weight.
  • Set realistic goals, taking into account the individual athlete's body type and shape.
  • Recognize when healthy training regimens turn into obsessive regimens.
  • Encourage positive self image and self esteem.

Participation in sports can have an extremely positive effect on the development and maturing of an individual. It can promote the ability to work as a member of a team, teach perseverance, and enhance goal attainment. With the right emphasis coaches, athletic trainers and teammates can promote emotional as well as physical health.

Rader Programs understands the special needs of an athlete with an eating disorder like Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating. Through our treatment process we have helped many collegiate, Olympic and professional athletes find recovery while at the same time meeting their athletic goals.