Eating Disorders and Young Athletes
As many parents know, playing organized sports has many benefits for kids. Children
who play sports get regular exercise and develop new friendships with team members.
Playing sports can boost self-esteem. It also teaches teamwork and leadership lessons.
But sometimes kids can be on a team that focuses too heavily on performance, or on
how kids look. This can have a negative effect. In some cases, it may trigger an eating
About eating disorders
An eating disorder is a health condition. It’s when someone has an unhealthy obsession
with food, weight, and how he or she looks. These are common types of eating disorders:
Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is marked by repeated episodes of eating a large amount of food at one time
(binge eating). This is followed by feeling extreme guilt and getting the food out
of the body (purging). The purging may include self-induced vomiting, extreme exercise,
fasting, or diuretic or laxative use.
Anorexia nervosa. With this eating disorder, a person has extreme thinness, severe calorie restriction,
a severely distorted body image, an extreme fear of weight gain, and denial.
Binge-eating disorder. This is linked to a loss of control over eating. People with this disorder eat a
large amount of food at a time without purging. They feel extreme shame and guilt
Sports and eating disorders
Eating disorders tend to affect female athletes and girls more often than males. But
boys can also have eating disorders.
Young athletes tend to be at a greater risk for having an eating disorder if they
play sports that focus on personal performance, appearance, diet, and weight requirements.
Such competitive sports include:
Swimming and diving
These factors can increase the risk that a young athlete will develop an eating disorder:
Having the mistaken idea that being thinner makes you a better athlete
Having a coach who focuses on appearance, competition, and success rather than sportsmanship
and the whole person
Having suffered physical or sexual abuse or another trauma
Having low self-esteem
Feeling family or peer pressure to be thin
Having family members with eating disorders
What parents can do
As a parent, you can give unconditional love and support. This lets your children
know that you value them for who they are, not how they look. Promote a positive body
image by setting a good example. Don't talk about dieting. And don't make critical
remarks about your own body, such as "I look so fat in these jeans." That kind of
attitude can affect your children.
To protect young athletes against eating disorders, you can also:
Encourage young athletes to focus on healthy ways to improve their performance. This
includes working on their physical strength and mental attitude.
Check that their coaches are a positive influence and never make negative comments
about weight. Talk with the coaches if you see this behavior occur.
Work with coaches that stress motivation and enthusiasm, not body size and shape.
Also make sure that coaches can spot the warning signs of eating disorders.
Keep a watch on social influences, social media, and teammates. Make sure they are
promoting healthy beliefs about weight, diet, and self-image. Also be sure that there
are no improper social pressures linked to these same areas.
Advise against frequent weigh-ins, and stress health and fitness over a certain number
on the scale.
Watch out for symptoms of eating disorders. These include abnormal or obsessive behaviors
about food or exercise. It also includes changes in weight, and changes in skin, hair,
and nails caused by malnutrition. Disordered eating can also lead to abnormal or missed
periods in young women, and calcium and bone loss. These things put young women at
higher risk for broken bones (fractures) and other bone problems. If you have any
concerns, take your child to see their healthcare provider.
Get help from a mental health provider right away if your child shows warning signs
of an eating disorder or an obsession with being thin.
Be willing to go to family counseling if advised by your child's therapist.