Eating Disorders a Danger for Competitive Young Athletes
By Timberline Knolls
For many parents, getting their children involved in athletics is a top priority during their young ones’ school-age years.
Participating in sports helps children get regular exercise, develop lasting friendships, and learn valuable skills like leadership and teamwork that extend outside of the playing field.
But as some kids advance in certain sports and look for any possible competitive edge, there can be obstacles along the way that can have dangerous consequences. One of the most serious hazards for many young people who are striving to be the best athlete they can be is the risk for developing an eating disorder.
The pressure to excel
Though it’s certainly possible for an athlete in a team sport to develop an eating disorder, these dangerous health conditions are more common among those who play sports that have a strong focus on appearance, diet, and weight requirements. These can include:
- Track or cross-country
- Figure skating
- Swimming or diving
There’s also the individual aspect of many of these sports. Figure skating and gymnastics, in particular, place an athlete as the center of attention in what is often tightfitting clothing. The spotlight and pressure to strive for perfection, both in sport and in appearance, are immense.
That can lead a young person to consider habits that seem simple enough on the surface but, as you look further, are often the precursors to disordered eating. Calorie counting may turn into dieting, which can lead to excessive exercise. All of a sudden, a young athlete’s quest to be their best may take a sharp turn toward an unhealthy spiral that requires professional help.
The types of eating disorders that affect athletes
The most common eating disorders in athletes are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. It’s important to understand how they differ so that you can look for signs of these disorders if an athlete you know may be struggling.
- Bulimia nervosa: This is marked by repeated episodes of eating a large amount of food at once, called bingeing, and then doing something to avoid weight gain, such as purging.
- Anorexia nervosa: Athletes who are living with anorexia tend to eat very little and severely limit the types of food they eat. Severe calorie restriction can lead to extreme thinness, a badly distorted body image, and fear of weight gain.
- Binge-eating disorder: This is a loss of control over what you’re eating and how much. People who have binge-eating disorder eat a large quantity of food without purging, which often leads to guilt and shame.
These aren’t the only disordered eating habits a young athlete can struggle with. Athletes can also be prone to conditions that are not recognized as clinically diagnosed eating disorders but are still frequent and potentially as dangerous.
These include orthorexia, an unhealthy focus on clean, healthy eating that can lead to malnutrition, and compulsive exercise, which can lead to muscle soreness, osteoporosis, an increased risk for injury, and loss of a menstrual cycle.
Warning signs and how to help
If you notice a young athlete who seems to be increasingly concerned with weight limits or goals, weight check-ins or measurements, or who exercises frequently away from their sport, it may be time to take further action.
If you see things like dehydration or changes in your child’s hair, skin, or nails, it’s likely time to consult a physician or mental health provider. But there are also steps you can take even if you’re not noticing red flags.
- Try to make sure that your child understands that what they see on social media isn’t always real. Many fad diets and improper weight loss techniques begin here.
- Talk to your child’s coach to see if they’re a positive influence and not someone who makes negative remarks about weight.
- Find coaches who stress motivation and enthusiasm rather than body size and shape.
Eating disorders are extremely dangerous conditions that can derail a young athlete’s career — and their long-term health. By understanding what to watch out for — and the right steps to take if you notice any warning signs — you can ensure that your child is happy and healthy in competition, at school, and at home.