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.
Recognizing Anorexia Athletica in Athletes
By Timberline Knolls Staff
Anorexia athletica, also known as exercise bulimia, is a type of eating disorder that involves excessive exercise in athletes. The disorder is similar to anorexia nervosa, a condition that involves restrictive eating. With anorexia athletica, a person may restrict their diet as well as overexercise, resulting in dangerous weight loss and malnutrition. Anorexia athletica can be difficult to detect, but it is important to receive treatment for the disorder as soon as possible to avoid physical and emotional damage.
Understanding Anorexia Athletica
Anorexia athletica is an eating disorder that affects athletes. Typically, the more physical activity you get, the more calories your body needs. However, those who struggle with anorexia athletica consume limited calories despite their high activity levels.
The restrictive eating of anorexia athletica is similar to that of other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. Focus on appearance, distorted body image, and fear of weight gain can also be present in those who have anorexia athletica. However, individuals who have anorexia athletica may not meet all the criteria for other eating disorders, making it an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).
What Causes Anorexia Athletica
Anorexia athletica can be difficult to detect because exercise can be healthy and an essential part of training for athletes. An athlete’s dedication to their sport may even be mistaken for the symptoms of anorexia athletica. Athletes are typically under immense pressure from coaches, teammates, and peers to be in the best shape they can be. Unfortunately, many sports have an emphasis on losing weight and even require regular weigh-ins, which only exacerbates the problem.
Participation in sports in which athletes feel pressured to lose weight in a short amount of time, like wrestling and boxing, may also increase an athlete’s risk for anorexia athletica behaviors. According to one study, 33% of male athletes in weight class sports showed signs of an eating disorder. For women in weight class sports, nearly 62% of athletes reported disordered eating.
For some, low self-esteem and negative body image may also play a role. Sports like gymnastics, swimming and diving, and dance involve tight-fitting uniforms that may worsen body dysmorphia for athletes.
Eating disorders like anorexia athletica are considered mental health conditions, and other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, may increase a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder.
Warning Signs of Anorexia Athletica
While anorexia athletica may go undetected even by the person who is struggling with it, there are some warning signs to watch closely for. One of the main signs of anorexia athletica is restricting calorie intake. Restricting calories can result in some noticeable side effects, such as:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of energy
- Increased recovery time between workouts
- Frequent injuries
The other major sign of anorexia athletica is excessively working out. This can involve feeling anxious, angry, or guilty when having to miss a workout and becoming defensive when told that they work out too much.
Left untreated, the symptoms of anorexia athletica can lead to damage to the bones and joints, a weakened immune system, arthritis, osteoporosis, and irregular menstruation. It is important to take the signs of anorexia athletica seriously and seek treatment for the disorder right away to prevent future damage.
Treating Anorexia Athletica
Anorexia athletica is treatable and requires the right mental health, nutrition, and fitness care. Therapy from a mental health professional can treat the symptoms of a range of eating disorders, including anorexia athletica. During therapy, an expert will discuss patterns of thinking, coping, and behavior to determine the root cause of anorexia athletica.
An important part of anorexia athletica treatment is discussing nutrition and how to work out in a healthy way. In treatment, those who are struggling with anorexia athletica can learn how to focus on optimizing their nutrition while avoiding dangerous calorie restricting, and finding a more balanced exercise routine.
If you or someone you know is struggling with anorexia athletica, help is available.