The Danger of Eating Disorders in Athletes

Athletes often appear invincible – they can sprint while kicking around a soccer ball or throw their bodies in the air and flip around multiple times and stick a landing. They look like the picture of health – in shape and full of energy. They visibly push themselves to their limits…and beyond them.

What you don’t see is the behind the scenes – skipping meals, fat-fear, and dangerous diets to “lean up.”

Many athletes struggle with the Female Athlete Triad, or the combination of:

  • low energy availability – not enough energy or NUTRITION to support activity
  • low bone mineral density – at risk or with osteoporosis
  • menstrual dysfunction or amenorrhea – missed or no period

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This triad is more dangerous than it sounds.

What do you get when an athlete who is doing two-a-day intense workouts and re-fueling with less than optimal calories and nutrition? Injuries, stress fractures, hormonal imbalances, and osteoporosis…even in a 20 year female.

Often, these situations are intertwined with eating disorders or disordered eating. Unfortunately, some athletes are told by their coaches to “just lose a little weight,” or the athlete thinks “thinner = faster.” This may translate into an athlete  skipping meals, or counting and cutting back on calories, in order to “lean up.” They tell themselves that they can stop anytime they want, but soon enough, these habits are engrained, and the disease takes over their life. Teammates may see their fastest runner on the team eating less, and these habits spread throughout the team. Sports teams can easily become breeding grounds for eating disorders.

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This isn’t a rare case scenario. Some studies report disordered eating habits occurring in 28-62% of “leanness” sports and eating disorders in 25-31% of leanness sports. This translates to at least a few athletes on every team with eating disorders! How many of them do you think get help? I’m guessing not many.

When women reach such a low body fat percentage, they lose your period. This is NOT healthy. You do not want to screw with your hormones at young ages. Young women are in the prime for bone development and may be destroying their chances to develop strong and healthy bones when they’re young.

There’s also a misconception that eating disorders occur only in “lean” sports, such as running or cross-country, crew, or gymnastics, and in women. Not true. You’ll find these in all sports and sexes, but since eating disorders are secretive, you’re not going to find many male wrestlers coming forward and admitting to starving themselves, or purging.

Eating disorders among athletes need to be prevented by changing the environment. Nutrition should be promoted as FUEL to provide energy and to recover. Food should not be feared but viewed as a key tool to improve performance.

In order to do this, everyone working with athletes needs to be educated and pay attention to their words. Honest discussions with the athletes will help bring up concerns regarding weight, body image, and food to begin to promote a healthy relationship.

Coaches, athletic trainers, teammates, parents, etc. all should pay attention to their WORDS and ACTIONS. If the coach is dieting or telling their team to all lose 5 pounds, it could make a big impact on an athlete. Words matter. Saying something along the lines of, “You shouldn’t eat that ice cream after working out.” may trigger an athlete to think, “Oh, no. It’s high in fat. That means I’ll become fat. Absolutely no fat for me anymore.” Instead, starting a conversation about nutrient-dense foods for recovery is a better option. Or don’t say anything. If I just ran a big race – I’m going to eat ice cream. That’s why I run the Vermont City Marathon or relay every year – Ben & Jerry’s at the finish line!

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People don’t understand that eating disorders are coping mechanisms. Something about the eating disorder is working for the individual. You can’t just tell the athlete to “eat more.” You have to approach them non-judgmentally and share your legitimate concerns. Encourage them, or even better help them, find a provider to get help – a doctor, therapist, and dietitian who are willing to work as a team.

If you work with athletes, start a conversation. Don’t ignore sudden weight loss, or let these disordered eating habits spread among the team. Thinner does not mean faster, better, or stronger. It only means injuries, stress fractures, brittle bones, and serious eating disorders. The good news is recovery is possible. Let the athletes know that getting help does not mean they are a failure. It only means they have the chance to come back a stronger, healthier, and happier athlete. Just watch these Olympic athletesstories for inspiring proof.

Have you ever seen disordered eating or eating disorders in athletes? How do you approach it?

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