We live in a society that values exercise and nutrition as a way to stay healthy, lean and fit and this can cause athlete eating disorders.
Over the years, I’ve seen thousands of clients participating in sports at all levels of competition — from weekend warrior to hard-driving high school, college and even elite athletes.
A commonly held belief is that body weight influences performance and thus, diets and dieting are seen as a way to enhance performance. This comes with risks, however, as weight is a sensitive and personal issue and diets usually lead to disordered eating.
Today I want to share an article written by our newest team member, Kelly Linehan, on the best ways to assess if an athlete might be exhibiting disordered eating behaviors, and the best next steps to take.
Sports Participation, Athletes and the Development of Eating Disorders
Written by Kelly Linehan, MS (and soon-to-be RD)
We live in a society that values exercise and nutrition as a way to stay healthy, lean and fit. Our culture also values the pursuit of thinness, with an emphasis on body weight and size. However, this comes with some warnings, especially for athletes.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association:
“The pressure to win and an emphasis on body weight and shape can create a toxic combination. Athletic competition can also be a factor contributing to severe psychological and physical stress. When the pressures of athletic competition are added to an existing cultural emphasis on thinness, the risk increases for athletes to develop disordered eating.(1)”
Many people think athletes are immune to things like eating disorders… but did you know that 13.5% of athletes have been clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder (2)?
Although this number might sound low, the number of athletes who engage in disordered eating behavior and chronic dieting are likely much higher.
Classic image and weight-dependent sports with females, like gymnastics, cheerleading, rowing, and dance, have been connected to eating disorders for decades. However, we now see all types of young athletes engaging in disordered eating habits, harmful food rituals, and obsessing over their body weight.
Male athletes are no exception, and we see similar disordered eating behaviors in sports where thinner, smaller athletes are desired and require frequent weigh-ins, such as wrestling, diving, and judo.
Eating Disorders Do Not Discriminate
The sad truth is that eating disorders do not discriminate. Perhaps it’s due to the normalization of “clean eating” and over-exercising, which sends the message that we need to eat a certain way if we want to look, feel, and perform our best. These cultural norms also make it increasingly more difficult to suspect an eating disorder, allowing it to develop into a more serious case. Teammates and coaches often praise individuals who are struggling with eating disorders for their perceived “discipline and strength.”
Dieting, calorie counting, and over-exercising have become so normalized that we now have information regarding every step taken, mile run, and calorie burned at our fingertips.
It’s no surprise that we are seeing an increase in disordered eating habits when we are bombarded with health information almost every second of every day. Or what if we see so many eating disorders in athletes because the perfectionist and overachieving qualities that drives them to succeed as student-athletes also put them at a higher risk of an eating disorder?
Participating in sports may also be a socially acceptable way to compensate for calories consumed and manage weight and, therefore, perpetuate a dangerous eating disorder.
How can we educate coaches, parents and even physicians about how to spot an eating disorder before it becomes life-threatening?
The complexity of disordered eating associated with sports makes it incredibly challenging to identify, diagnose, and treat eating disorders and disordered eating.
Following are some suggestions for early intervention and treatment:
- We need to educate parents and coaches about the diet culture and dieting messages they are sending to their athletes and equip them with tools they need to recognize disordered eating habits. Important messages to send to student-athletes are that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, that all bodies need consistent sources of protein, fats and carbohydrates and that the best way to honor our bodies is through the practice of intuitive eating.
- Early intervention makes a difference in the type and intensity of treatment needed. Regardless of the setting, treating an athlete with an eating disorder involves a client-centralized approach that addresses their specific concerns and needs. Prescribing a high calorie meal plan is simply not enough due to the strong psychological component of eating disorders.
- Enlist a team of skilled treatment professionals including a physician, a therapist and a registered dietitian:
- A physician is needed to monitor medical stability and determine when a client is medically stable and cleared to participate in sports.
- A therapist skilled at treating eating disorders is needed to work on deconstructing the athletes’ misconceptions about food and nutrition, address any food rituals, and work on reframing disordered thoughts.
- Registered dietitians are uniquely qualified to help a person learn to eat without fear and make peace with food. They can then address the nutritional needs student athletes have with increased physical activity.
Treating the eating disorder first and foremost is necessary to promote a life-long healthy relationship with food and exercise; long after their athletic career has ended.
If you know an athlete or family who may need the help of specialists like Kelly and our Dietitians with Erica Leon Nutrition, please have them give us a call and book an initial consult. Our athletes of today and tomorrow need to know they can have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies and still be competitive.
- Sundgot-Borgen, J., & Torstveit, M. K. (2004). Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in the general population. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: Official Journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine, 14(1), 25-32
ARE YOU READY TO…….
- End your struggle with food and body image?
- Stop blaming yourself for being hungry and then overeating?
- Stop cutting out entire food groups or foods from your diet?
- Remove yourself from the emotional and toxic diet culture we live in?
- Learn to be at peace with your body?
- Achieve an authentic, valued, and healthy life?
IF YOUR ANSWER IS YES, then the Intuitive Eating Essentials for Midlife, Menopause and Beyond is for YOU!
Intuitive Eating Essentials for Midlife, Menopause and Beyond is a self-paced, program that explores your relationship with food, your dieting history, readiness to integrate intuitive eating into your life, and teaches you how to use your values to make peace with food.
Click here for all the details!
Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She and her team of eating disorder specialists and Anti-Diet Dietitians provide insurance-based care for eating disorders, disordered eating, chronic dieting, or other health conditions in a safe and non-judgmental space for healing.
We work virtually with our clients from our offices in Westchester County in New York as well as the tri-state areas of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, along with Florida, California, Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas, and Vermont. We are in-network with the following insurance companies: Aetna, Cigna, and United Healthcare; including Oxford, UMR, and The Empire Plan (NYSHIP).
We take the time to learn where you or your family are in the pursuit of health. Respectful of your individual needs and lifestyle, Erica will provide an honest assessment of whether or not you are a good fit to work together. Click here to schedule a 15-minute Discovery Call with Erica to let us know about your needs, and to see which of our Dietitians is the best fit for you!