Eating Disorders and Young Athletes
As many parents know, playing organized sports has many benefits for kids. Children
who splay 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 being on a team that focuses too heavily on performance, or on how kids
look, can have a negative effect. In some cases it may trigger an eating disorder.
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 huge amounts 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,
Binge-eating disorder. This disorder is linked to a loss of control over eating. People
with this eat huge amounts of food at a time without purging. They feel extreme shame
and guilt afterward.
Sports and eating disorders
Eating disorders tend to affect female athletes and girls more often than males. But
boys can also suffer from eating disorders.
Young male and female athletes who play in sports that focus on individual performance,
appearance, diet, and weight requirements tend to be at a greater risk for having
an eating disorder. Such competitive sports include:
Swimming and diving
These factors can increase the risk that a young athlete will develop an eating disorder:
Misconceptions that being thinner makes you a better athlete
Having a coach who focuses on 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 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. Avoid talking about dieting or making critical remarks
about your own body, like "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 derogatory comments
about weight. Use coaches that stress motivation and enthusiasm rather than body size
and shape. Also make sure that coaches can spot the warning signs of eating disorders.
Keep a watch on social influences and teammates. Make sure they are promoting healthy
beliefs about weight, diet, and self-image. Also that there are no improper social
pressures linked to these same areas.
Discourage frequent weigh-ins, and stress health and fitness over a certain number
on the scale.
Watch out for symptoms of eating disorders. These include unusual or obsessive behaviors
regarding food or exercise, 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 his or her healthcare provider.
Seek help from a mental health professional right away if your child shows warning
signs of an eating disorder or an obsession with being thin.