Athletes and Eating Disorders; what parents and coaches need to know…

Elizabeth Hunkins is a therapist at Aurora Behavioral Health Center in Summit

Elizabeth Hunkins is a therapist at Aurora Behavioral Health Center in Summit

Sport activities offer such an array of benefits for individuals from improved confidence, self-esteem, social skills and healthy activity.  But when does having “fun” cross the line that places an individual at risk for possible eating disorder?

Competition in athletics can be a factor that leads to psychological stress, which increases risk factors for disordered eating patterns in males and females.  A study in 1992 found that 62 percent of females in sports suffered from eating disorders (mirror-mirror.org).  It is believed that since that study was completed that eating disorders among athletes continue to be on the rise.  Many parents, coaches and even physicians fail to recognize the signs of eating disorders in these individuals.  Athletes are at a greater risk of medical complication due to the demands they place on their body.

There are too many stories of athletes that have suffered from this disease. In July of 1994, top US gymnast, Christy Henrich died of multiple organ failure after a US judge told her she was “too fat and needed to lose weight to make the team”, and subsequently dropped to 47 pounds. She resorted to anorexia and bulimia, which eventually took her life.  Cathy Rigby, another Olympian suffered with this disease for 12 years and went into cardiac arrest two different times (mirror-mirror.org).  Not only is this happening on the elite level, it is happening on every level of competition in sports.

What are some early warning signs of an eating disorder in an athlete?

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Going to bathroom after meals
  • No breaks in weekly training (should have 1-2 days off per week)
  • Increased concern about body fat/calorie intake
  • Rigid behavior around food (refuses food groups, eating fat free/eating in isolation)
  • Social withdrawal from family and peers
  • Preoccupied with training/exercise and becomes upset if unable to workout
  • Will continue to workout even when ill/sick
  • Other areas in life becomes unmanageable (relationships, work, school)
  • Loss or irregular menses

Coaches need to educate themselves on the dangers of eating disorders and recognize early warning signs and intervene.  Education needs to be provided on healthy nutrition, and proper refueling.  Coaches need to be positive, encouraging and motivating; not harsh, negative and critical to athletes.  Parents should attend a training session to observe their child and the coach’s training.  A parent should not witness a coach pressuring their child to “WIN at any cost”.

Coaches should encourage athletes to develop a healthy routine with adequate emphasis on eating, hydration and life balance. Coaches should praise their efforts and their achievements.  If there are negative comments about an athlete’s appearance/weight and performance, then it is time to change coaches/programs for the well-being of the individual and seek assistance from a professional.

Liz Hunkins, LCSW is a therapist at Aurora Behavioral Health Center in Summit

If you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, please contact Aurora Behavioral Health Services at 877-666-7223 or visit our web site at Aurora Behavioral Health Services

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