Studies suggest that disordered eating may be more common among athletes and yet potentially more difficult to recognize. If you’re coaching an athletic team, or parenting an athlete, it’s critical to understand the impact of disordered eating in sport. However, your job is not to try to diagnose an athlete. Instead, this post is meant to help you recognize if someone might be struggling in case a health professional should be contacted.
Which Eating Disorders are Common Among Athletes?
Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by a preoccupation with weight, food, and periods of self-starvation. A person with a restrictive form of anorexia will experience weight loss and maintain a low bodily weight through means of severe energy restriction and excessive exercise.
Bulimia Nervosa is represented through binging and purging tendencies; massive amounts of food will be consumed and then the individual will try to “compensate” for the binge, potentially through vomiting, excessive exercise, and/or laxative abuse.
Why are Athletes at Risk?
- People struggling with disordered eating tend to lack a strong, holistic sense of self. If an athlete derives their identity almost entirely from their sport, they may be at a higher risk.
- Weight loss or maintenance of low weight can become a huge part of defining athletic success.
- Controlling weight can also be perceived as a sign of strength and self-discipline (traits especially valued in athletes). The flip-side is that inability to control weight might be deemed a sign of weakness and failure.
- Food is often used as a reward, particularly foods that are otherwise considered “forbidden.” Binging on forbidden foods (i.e. foods high in sugar, salt and/or fat), may lead to feelings of shame and precipitate a purge.
- Excessively controlling food, exercise, and weight may be the only way an athlete has learned to cope with stress or anxiety; it provides a sense of control when everything else is in chaos.
Why is Disordered Eating Difficult to Recognize in Athletes?
- Many athletes have rigorous training schedules that already seem excessive to those who are not heavily involved in sport.
- The caloric needs of an athlete are usually much higher than the general population. You may not be able to identify a binge unless you are acutely aware of an athlete’s normal eating habits.
- Engaging in additional exercise beyond regular training, and exercising through injury or illness, points to a fear of “taking time off” but this not always related to disordered eating.
Discussing some of the following questions may help you decipher whether or not an athlete is struggling or at risk of disordered eating if you have a close relationship with him or her:
1. When you think of who you are and what you value, what comes to mind?
Look to see if the athlete has a strong sense of self (e.g. abilities, talents, beliefs and ideas outside of their sport), feeding their self-identity. If sport encompasses all their self worth, it’s time to encourage and engage the athlete in other endeavours that can expand their view of self.
2. What does failure mean?
Dealing with failure and disappointment in life is difficult for any person. Help an athlete cultivate a healthy understand of failure. Failure sets us on a trajectory of growth; it doesn’t make us less as individuals.
3. What does success look like?
Does the athlete only consider success related to sport, physical accomplishments, and discipline? Can they recall or discuss success in other areas, such as friendships?
Please remember that detecting disordered eating in athletes is a difficult thing to do. Talk to your family physician if you feel this is something impacting yourself, or a family member. If you are a coach, follow your league’s policies and procedures for alerting family and seeking professional help if you believe an athlete is at risk.