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Eating Disorders: Signs and Symptoms

A new government study1 reports that more than half a million teens have had an eating disorder, most commonly in the form of binge eating disorder and bulimia, and that most go untreated. Cheerleaders in pyramid

If you suspect your young athlete has or is developing an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, here are the warning signs to look for:


Anorexia is a condition in which an athlete's diet does not allow her to maintain her weight within 15% of the mean for her age and height. (Remember: daily requirements for calories, carbohydrates, and protein are greater for athletes).

  1. Sudden weight loss or gain
  2. Distorted body image
  3. Obsession with weighing oneself;
  4. Avoidance of social eating (i.e. a girl who likes to eat alone);
  5. Preoccupation with food and dieting/unreasonable fear of being fat ;
  6. Hair loss
  7. Intolerance to cold
  8. Obsessive exercising


Bulimia is where an individual (usually, but not always, female) engages in "binge eating" (i.e. eating too much uncontrollably in one sitting) and then purging (vomiting, exercising intensely) to get rid of the food just eaten.

  1. Frequent use of bathroom after eating
  2. Fluctuating weight
  3. Bloodshot eyes
  4. Swollen glands
  5. Swollen extremities
  6. Discolored teeth (i.e. eroded tooth enamel from frequent vomiting)
  7. Feelings of depression, guilt or shame about eating
  8. Suicide attempts
  9. Drug use
  10. Aches and pains
  11. Dramatic fluctuations in athletic performance.

Sports emphasizing weight gain/loss

Weight control is seen as advantageous in numerous sports children and adolescents play. Thinness, leanness and/or competing at the lowest possible weight are emphasized in all of the following sports:

  • Bodybuilding
  • Cheerleading
  • Dance
  • Distance running
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Diving
  • Figure skating
  • Gymnastics
  • Martial arts
  • Rowing (crew)
  • Swimming
  • Weight-class football
  • Wrestling.

Other sports, such as football, rugby, basketball, and power lifting stress weight gain by increasing muscle mass.

Youth athletes attempting to lose weight and body fat, or gain weight and muscle mass, may resort to unhealthy weight-control practices which can be potentially harmful to their performance and/or their health and lead to eating disorders.



1. Swanson SA, Crow SJ, Le Grange D, Swendsen J, Merikangas KR. Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Arch. Gen Psychiatry 2011 (published online at http://archpsyc.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/archgenpsychiatry.2011.22)(accessed March 18, 2011)

Posted March 18, 2011

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