Summer Olympic Games: A Chance to Celebrate Athleticism and Increase Education About Eating Disorders Among Athletes
Chief Marketing Officer Julie Holland’s EverydayHealth blog “The Truth About Eating Disorders,” is temporarily unavailable while it moves to a new location on the EverydayHealth website. In the mean time, Julie’s blogs will be posted here on the Eating Recovery Center blog.
This Friday marks the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympic Games, putting the excitement of athletics and competition at the forefront of our minds. However, this year’s Summer Olympics also creates an opportunity to address a serious issue: eating disorders among athletes.
Tuning in every two years to watch the Olympics is exciting. It’s fun to see all the countries enter together at the opening ceremonies and cheer on your favorite athletes in different sports and events. However, as an active member of the eating disorders field, I also want to use this time to raise awareness and educate others about eating disorders in athletes, especially as the majority of experts agree that certain sports and athletic events can put athletes at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder.
According to research by Eating Recovery Center’s chief clinical officer, Dr. Craig Johnson, at least one-third of female college athletes have an eating disorder.[i]
Many people may stereotypically think that ballet is the only sporting activity that has a high prevalence of eating disorders, while there are actually several sports where eating disorders persist. Body- or weight-focused sports like gymnastics, swimming and diving, and even wrestling and horse racing may be harmful to athletes who are either genetically predisposed to an eating disorder or struggling with their own body image issues.
Elite athletes often share similar personality traits and characteristics with eating disordered individuals. Both types of individuals strive for perfection and are quite often people-pleasing high achievers. These personality traits can lead to disordered eating when weight becomes a determining participation factor or the focus is on a particular outfit an athlete wears in competition. Coaches, trainers and even parents should be aware of how their athlete handles these requirements and stay attuned to potential warning signs.
A few common warning signs specific to eating disorders in athletes include:
- Decrease in performance.
- Increase in exercise outside of normal or routine preparation activities.
- Stress fractures and other “overuse” injuries.
Along with staying aware of potential warning signs, coaches, trainers and even fellow athletes and team members can actively practice prevention strategies to minimize the risk of eating disorders among athletes.
Prevention strategies for coaches and trainers include:
- Stress and promote overall performance rather than weight, body fat percentage or other quantitative measures.
- Recognize your role in the relationship with your athletes; use that strength and influence to educate them about eating disorders and prevent their development.
- Arm yourself with an understanding of potential eating disorders risks associated with your sport and team. Learning about preventative measures and eating disorders resources can be immensely helpful.
Preventative strategies for athletes:
- Be aware of your own and your fellow athletes’ perspectives on food, weight and body image as well as the available eating disorders resources should they be needed.
- Avoid quick fix or last minute weight loss solutions by preparing early for weight management events such as competitions or weigh-ins.
- Engage in and stay active with comprehensive nutrition assessments that help to educate you about healthy weights, body fat percentages and associated behaviors.
It’s important to remember that eating disorders don’t discriminate. Regardless of athletic ability or gender, elite athletes can still struggle with potentially dangerous body image issues and disordered eating behaviors. Therefore, as an athletic community, coaches, trainers, parents and fellow athletes should educate themselves to help others prevent eating disorders.
[i] Johnson, C., Powers, P.S., Dick, R. Athletes and Eating Disorders: The National Collegiate Athletic Association Study. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999, International Journal of Eating Disorders 26, 179-188.