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 (  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 (  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


Handling Holidays, Gatherings… and Food

Kristina Vollmer, PhD is a psychologist at Aurora Behavioral Health Center Sinai.

Kristina Vollmer, PhD is a psychologist at Aurora Behavioral Health Center Sinai.

Holidays and gatherings can be a particularly difficult time for many people who are trying to change their eating in order to live healthier lives. It is particularly difficult for people who are have undergone Bariatric Surgery, or are preparing for Bariatric Surgery.  Here are some tips and strategies to keep in mind so that you are able to thoroughly enjoy yourself without getting off track!

  • Recognize that you cannot control things the same way you do at home.  This may make you angry. It is important to recognize your frustration rather than to eat it.
  • Acknowledge your cravings – trying to ignore that you even have them sets you up to give in to them. Say to yourself:  “I really want (specific food), but this is the new me. I don’t need (specific food) to feel good about this holiday/occasion or to enjoy myself.”
  • Before you go out, take the time to imagine how the food will be at this event.  When will you eat? What will be served? How hungry will you be? Will there be foods that will trigger you to overeat? Will there be healthy foods that will satisfy you? Will there be foods that you want to treat yourself to? How much do you want to eat? How much and what do you need to eat? Now, being as realistic as possible, decide how you can handle the event in the most positive way for you.
  • Have a goal you DO want to accomplish at the event.  Make it about “doing something” rather than trying to prevent something.  It is fine to have food goals, but you also need to have personal, emotional, spiritual, and relationship goals as well. Remember, gatherings are suppose to be about enjoying each other’s company; not about the food!
  • After the event is over, think about what you could do the next time. Could you suggest a different place? Could you arrive after the eating is over? Could you help plan a healthier selection?
  • Review what was uncomfortable, and then strategize for how to handle it differently in the future. Review what worked well, and congratulate yourself for even small accomplishments.
  • Get adequate sleep!!  You will eat more calories and crave carbs/sugar/caffeine if you are sleep deprived.
  • Never arrive hungry.  Eat something before you go.  Have a protein bar or other items you can carry with you in case the food gets delayed.
  • Don’t skip meals and starve in an attempt to make up for what you recently ate or are about to eat.
  • Offer to bring a food so you know there will be at least one healthy choice there.
  • If at a restaurant, be the first to order so you are not influenced by others decisions. Plus, everyone else is too focused on trying to remember what they are going to order to pay attention to what you are ordering.
  • Have a loved one be an ally for you in the situation – fix a plate for you, help handle situations, help make good choices, help you leave if needed.
  • At social events, don’t fill silence with food. Many people will eat and drink because they don’t know what to say or how to act.  Instead, make an effort to get to know people beyond superficial small talk.  When we do that, we have a tendency to eat less.
  • Use small plates – if there is a salad plate use it for the meal.
  • Cover your plate with your napkin when you’re done so you won’t nibble unconsciously.
  • Arrive late, after food is served.
  • Try to avoid alcohol, it will lower your resistance.
  • Sit far away from the buffet line or kitchen.
  • Plan a walk with loved ones after the meal.
  • Have an “exit” plan.  Know when to use it!
  • It is OK to say no to cake!  If you watch, there are usually a few others who also decline.
  • Do things that keep you moving or keep your hands occupied. If it’s a social outing, bring a clutch instead of a purse, or keep a glass of water in your hand.  Volunteer to write down the gifts at a shower, bring games to play, help clean up, offer to take people’s plates when they’re done with them, offer to cut the cake or hand it out (and take note of the different ways people decline cake or other desserts!).
  • It is OK to throw food away.  Most of us have been made to feel guilty that there are starving people everywhere who would appreciate the food.  In reality, you eating the food is NOT going to help starving people any more than throwing it away will!  You can compost the food, feed other animals, or take it to a homeless shelter if it is truly too hard to throw away.

Remember, gatherings are supposed to be about enjoying each other’s company; not about the food!

Kristina Vollmer, PhD is a psychologist at Aurora Behavioral Health Center Sinai.

Aurora Behavioral Health Services offers complete mental health treatment options, provided by highly trained professionals in a caring, confidential manner to meet individual and family needs.  If you or someone you know needs help, contact us — online or by phone at 1-877-666-7223 — as soon as possible.

What does “eating well” mean to a person with an eating disorder?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognizes March 9, 2016 as Registered Dietitian Day. This event, started in 2008, was created to increase the awareness of the vital part registered dietitians provide for patients regarding food and nutrition services and to recognize RDs for their commitment to helping people enjoy healthy lives.

The importance of the registered dietitian is extremely evident in the area of Eating Disorder treatment.

Blaies, Sandy 04a

Sandy Blaies

“Dietitians are an essential part of our program at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital” says Sandy Blaies, Eating Disorders program supervisor. “Eating disorders have both psychological and physiological elements and require treatment providers with expertise in both.

“The extreme dieting behaviors, severe weight loss and symptoms of semi-starvation, binge-eating behaviors, and the patient’s distorted beliefs about nutrition and dietary requirements all support the need for the expertise provided by dietitians.”

“Dietitians have an essential role within the multidisciplinary assessment and treatment programs for all three major eating disorders.”

The main aim is to provide sound nutritional knowledge for the patient, the caregivers and other members of the treatment team. The focus of treatment should be on the establishment of a balanced dietary intake which will restore nutritional status and body weight.

Anne Sprenger

Anne Sprenger

Ann Sprenger, RD, a registered dietitian in the Aurora Psychiatric Hospital Eating Disorder Program describes how she works with patients. “I meet with every patient to provide nutrition information, describe how nutrition affects their mental and physical health, and to develop a diet plan in partnership with the patient.

“We monitor food intake every day and identify barriers to healthy eating habits. It is important for the patients to practice healthy eating habits while in the treatment program.”

Dr. Dinshah Gagrat, MD is the Medical Director of the Aurora Psychiatric Hospital Eating Disorder Program. “Professionals who treat patients with an eating disorder need to have knowledge of the nutritional effects and physiological consequences of the illness. This is rare within a predominantly mental health setting and this is the importance of including a registered dietitian in the treatment team.”

How do registered dietitians help people live well? Check out the top 10 ways from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Dr. Dinshah Gagrat

Dr. Dinshah Gagrat

If you or someone you know may be experiencing an eating disorder please contact us at 877-666-7223 or visit our web site at Aurora Behavioral Health Services or check out these resources: