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Preventing Eating Disorders: Parents, Coaches, and Athletes Can Help

Driven athletes possess similar personality traits to individuals who suffer from anorexia nervosa, which may predispose them to the potential development of an eating disorder. For this reason, and with fall sports in full swing, experts encourage parents, coaches and athletes themselves to understand and minimize athletic activities and pressures that could potentially lead to disordered eating. 

High risk sports 

Experts agree that certain sports tend to place athletes at a greater than average risk for developing an eating disorder. High risk sports include:

  • dance and ballet;
  • gymnastics;Swim team
  • wresting;
  • endurance running; and 
  • swimming. 

In fact, a study1 authored by Craig Johnson, PhD, FAED, CEDS, chief clinical officer of the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado, found that at least one-third of female college athletes have some symptoms of an eating disorder.

"The same perfectionistic, high-achieving temperament that fuels athletic achievement closely mirrors the traits of individuals who tend to develop eating disorders," said Dr. Johnson. "For this reason, it is important for athletes and their parents and coaches to be aware of and responsive to eating disorders risk factors in the athletic environment."

Advice for parents 

To help parents of athletes reduce eating disorders risks, the Eating Recovery Center offers the following advice:

  • Keep a watchful eye for signs of over-exercising or obsession with achieving a specific weight or body size for competition.
  • Focus on the excitement of playing a sport or the importance of being part of a team, rather than on performance and wins and losses.
  • If eating disorders run in your family, be cautious about placing your child in body shape- or weight-focused sports, including those mentioned above.

Advice for coaches

Coaches can also assist in eating disorders prevention by recognizing their leadership role and exercising that influence to support the health of their athletes. Eating Recovery Center offers coaches the following advice:

  • Watch what you say: Be mindful of the comments you make about athletes' body types, shapes and sizes; seemingly harmless remarks can be very triggering for genetically predisposed individuals.
  • Maintain confidentiality regarding an athlete's weight: If weighing athletes or measuring body fat is a component of preparation for your sport, make efforts to privately assess athletes and keep numbers confidential when possible.
  • Keep the lines of communication with your athletes open: Make sure you speak with the athelte if you have concerns about their weight loss or behaviors.

Advice for athletes

Athletes should adhere to the following recommendations to ensure safe and healthy athletic participation:

  • Focus on creating balance in your life and make time for non-athletic endeavors such as schoolwork, hobbies and time with friends and family.
  • Recognize the value of resting when you are injured or ill; pushing yourself harder during these times can result in further injury or illness.
  • Being asked to drop weight for an athletic event can trigger disordered eating:  Allow plenty of time for safe weight loss preparation and encourage teammates to do the same.

Early intervention key 

Eating disorders in athletes of any age can lead to

  • lower levels of athletic performance
  • organ malfunction
  • bone deterioration and osteoporosis; 
  • cardiovascular problems. 

Early intervention and expert treatment from eating disorder professionals can minimize the chances for negative long-term health effects.

For more information about eating disorders in athletes, visit www.EatingRecoveryCenter.com to chat confidentially live with an eating disorder professional, or you can contact them at 877-218-1344 or by email at info@EatingRecoveryCenter.com.

1. Johnson C, Powers PS, Dick R. Athletes and eating disorders: the National Collegiate Athletic Association study. Int J Eat Disord. 1999;26(2):179-88.

Additional source: Eating Recovery Center 

Posted October 3, 2012



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