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Eating Disorders and Young Athletes

As many parents can attest, participating in competitive sports can help kids stay out of trouble. Rather than hanging out at the mall or in front of a video game console after school, they can enjoy regular exercise and the camaraderie of other players. 

Playing competitive sports can boost self-esteem and teach teamwork and leadership lessons. But sometimes being on a team that focuses too heavily on performance—or appearance—may trigger an eating disorder.

About eating disorders

An eating disorder is a medical condition characterized by an unhealthy obsession with food, weight, and appearance. These are common types of eating disorders:

  • Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is marked by recurrent episodes of bingeing on large amounts of food followed by purging (self-induced vomiting, extreme exercise, fasting, or diuretic or laxative use) out of guilt.

  • Anorexia nervosa. This eating disorder is characterized by extreme thinness, severe calorie restriction, a severely distorted body image, an extreme fear of weight gain, and denial.

  • Binge-eating disorder. This disorder is linked to a loss of control over eating. Hallmarks of the disorder include consuming enormous amounts of food at one time (without purging) and experiencing extreme shame and guilt afterward.

Teen girl looking at an asparagus spear on a plate

Sports and eating disorders

Although eating disorders tend to affect female athletes and girls in general more often than males, boys can also suffer from eating disorders.

Young male and female athletes who participate in sports that focus on individual performance, appearance, diet, and weight requirements tend to be at a greater risk for developing an eating disorder. Such competitive sports include:

  • Swimming and diving

  • Bodybuilding

  • Wrestling

  • Gymnastics

  • Running

  • Dancing

  • Figure skating

  • Crew (rowing)

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

  • Constant dieting

What parents can do

As a parent, you can provide unconditional love and support so your children know that you value them for themselves rather than for their appearance. Promote a positive body image by setting a good example: Avoid talking about dieting or making critical remarks about your own body, such as "I look so fat in these jeans." That kind of attitude can influence your children.

To protect youth athletes against eating disorders, you can also:

  • Encourage your young stars to focus on healthy ways to improve performance, such as working on their physical strength and mental attitude.

  • Check that their coaches are a positive influence and never make derogatory comments about weight; also ensure that they can recognize the warning signs of eating disorders.

  • Discourage frequent weigh-ins, and stress health and fitness over a particular number on the scale.

  • Watch out for symptoms of eating disorders, including unusual or obsessive behaviors regarding food or exercise, changes in weight, and changes in skin, hair, and nails brought on by malnutrition.

  • Seek help from a mental health professional immediately if your child shows warning signs of an eating disorder or an obsession with being thin. 

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