Examining the Relationship Between Athletics and Eating Disorders

School and college athletics are wonderful ways for young adults to improve their leadership, teamwork, and perseverance skills. Unfortunately, in at-risk populations for eating disorders, they can act as a trigger for the development of …


School and college athletics are wonderful ways for young adults to improve their leadership, teamwork, and perseverance skills. Unfortunately, in at-risk populations for eating disorders, they can act as a trigger for the development of eating disorders. For parents of teenagers who participate in athletics, it should be clear there are many factors of child’s participation in sports that link with the development of their disordered eating behaviors.

Eating disorders tend to affect young girls and female athletes more often than their male peers, but boys can also develop common eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Studies have shown that participation in sports that focus on appearance, weight control, and diet indicates a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Some examples of competitive and individual sports with potential links to eating disorder development include:

  • Wrestling
  • Swimming
  • Diving
  • Ballet
  • Dance
  • Boxing and martial arts

Related factors that can increase a young athlete’s risk of developing an eating disorder include:

  • Being told they must maintain a certain body weight or shape by coaches
  • Experimenting with frequent or extreme diets
  • Wearing revealing or skintight uniforms for their sport
  • A requirement to complete regular “weigh-ins” in order to compete

Signs That an Adolescent Athlete Is at Risk for an Eating Disorder

The weight loss and frequent exercising that come with school and college sports may make it easier to mask the development of an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, even among attentive parents and coaches. Paying attention to early warning signs is the best way to ensure adolescents can enroll in eating disorder treatment as soon as possible, if necessary. Some common eating disorder warning signs that loved ones should be aware of include:

Excessive Exercise and Frequent Dieting

Improvement in performance and stamina in an athlete come from practice and a solid diet to fuel the needs of their exertions. However, sticking to a strict diet and exercise regimen can quickly become too much for adolescents.It can easily tip over into a cycle of disordered eating behaviors that can wreak havoc on their lives. If parents notice that their child is suddenly compulsively counting their calories, refusing to eat certain kinds of food,or displaying a commitment to exercise despite injury or bad weather, it might be time to consult an eating disorder treatment professional.

Showing More Focus on Their Body and Weight

Of course, adolescence is a time when people become more concerned with their weight an body, but when teens start to display signs they are dissatisfied with their body, there could be cause for parents to worry. Negative body image is a key contributing factor in almost every kind of eating disorder, and like the disorder themselves, body dysmorphia normally beings during the teenage years. If a teenage athlete suddenly begins to act obsessively about their weight and appearance, they may be at higher risk for an eating disorder.

Frequent Fluctuations in Body Weight

As teens grow and go through puberty, it is common for them to experience slight changes in their body shape and weight. However, rapid shifts in overall body weight or prolonged periods of remaining underweight for their general age, height and stature could indicate a problem. Additionally, athletes may receive praise when they have “made weight” for a particular sport and when coupled with perfectionism, this can cause an impulse to restrict caloric intake.

Changes in Menstruation or Delayed Puberty

Anorexia nervosa and other common eating disorders can result in many long-term health complications including electrolyte imbalances, malnutrition and abnormal sex hormone cycles in pubescent girls. Infrequent menstrual periods or the absence of menstruation altogether is typically a clear indication teen girls have developed an eating disorder. A delayed onset of puberty may also indicate a nutritional imbalance in male adolescent athletes.

Overuse Injuries and Stress Fractures

A history of stress fractures and overuse injuries may be a warning sign that something is physically wrong with a student-athlete. Many times, the combination of low food and nutrient intake, paired with a high level of training and reduced body weight can result in weakened bones and increase an athlete’s risk for injury.

Finding Treatment

None of these signs is a guarantee that a teen is developing an eating disorder; likewise, participation in sports or athletics doesn’t mean a teen will need eating disorder treatment. However, parents and their caregivers to teenage athletes should be aware of these signs, and take action if there is any doubt. Eating disorders can be dangerous, but they can be overcome – even more easily if caught early.

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