Athletes and Eating Disorders – Where To Draw The Line

eating disorders

When clients come to us with a high level of motivation already in place, our jobs become much easier. Having passed right over the Pre-contemplative and Contemplative stages of readiness, we can help them jump right into achieving the goal on which they have set their sights. For a client who is trying to lose weight, we present ideas on healthy meal planning combined with prudent exercise. Is it always that simple? For many dedicated athletes, a message with good intentions sometimes gets misconstrued, often to a dangerous extreme.

Startling Statistics

Back in 2004, a study was conducted by a group of researchers in Norway. Their mission was to establish a possible link between athletes and eating disorders. The data indicated that athletes are close to 3x more likely to develop an eating disorder than the general population. Dr. James Greenblatt, Chief Medical Officer and Vice President of Medical Services at Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, Mass., claims these statistics are still witnessed today.


When potential clients enter the gym, they are most often seeking strength, toning, weight loss, lean muscle mass development, or some combination thereof. Some trainers, however, focus solely on clients who are serious high school athletes hoping for a scholarship, or collegiate athletes seeking to excel in their chosen sport. It is these particular clients, male or female, who need us to be able to recognize the warning signs of a budding eating disorder.

Taking A Wrong Turn

Similarly to what is witnessed in any addictive condition, denial figures prominently in individuals with eating disorders; sadly, many coaches unknowingly foster the illness. When a competitive athlete is winning consistently, yet still demonstrates obvious signs of an eating disorder, many coaches and trainers choose to turn a blind eye to the situation rather than risk losing their star. By proceeding in such a manner, they unwittingly fuel such denial within the athlete. Collegiate coaches especially fall prey to this dynamic. After all, their own reputations often fly on the wings of their exceptional athlete’s success. Perhaps as Fitness professionals we do not fully embrace the life-threatening severity that frequently accompanies an eating disorder. The annual mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is more than 12 times higher than the death rate of all causes for females 15 to 24 years old. In fact, of all recorded psychiatric disorders, anorexia and bulimia carry the highest rate of death.


Leaning Toward Perfection

Eating disorders can be found among athletes in almost any sport. However, they are most commonly observed in the realm of competitive sports that favor the lean athlete. These are the sports that establish weight classes for competitive athletes, such as boxing and wrestling. Many sports abilities may be made more advantageous with a leaner physique: gymnastics, ballet, track, cycling and rowing. Among sports that are judged, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reveals that 13 % of competitive athletes suffer some form of eating disorder, as compared with only 3% of those who participate in recreational refereed sports.

Aside from deep denial, most eating-disordered athletes exhibit the drive for perfection. To fully comprehend this concept, think no further than the recent Summer Olympic Games. As we watch, holding our breath, as yet another tiny gymnast leaps over the vaulting horse, turns flips while standing on a very narrow beam, or hopes to stick a perfect landing at the conclusion of a death-defying performance on the uneven bars, television announcers regale us with words of praise such as “perfect execution”, “flawless performance”, “precision movement”, and the like. No doubt the girls’ coaches have used these exact phrases during their rigorous training sessions. Are they being encouraging, fostering confidence? Could they also be part of the problem and not the solution?

Consider the athletic role models with which many of us have grown up. Aside from such sports as dance and cheerleading, most of our well-recognized and highly revered role models are male. Spending a bulk of their childhood and developing teen years surrounded by such a message, female athletes may feel more pressure to “masculinize” their bodies by becoming leaner and more muscular. With such changes can come the cessation of menstrual periods, which sadly has great appeal to female athletes striving for the ultimate control and mastery over their bodies. As she sees her performance increase, she becomes fueled by a false and very unhealthy ideal.

eating disorders

How Trainers Can Help

As trainers, we might consider re-thinking our own behaviors when training serious young athletes. Unbeknownst to our conscious minds, our subconscious may harbor certain values and attitudes regarding weight, dieting, and body image. Being aware of what messages we are conveying, no matter how subtly, to our clients, can help us keep their perspective on a healthy track. It is our job to promote and help foster a positive self-image in such athletes. Keep in mind that any athlete who exhibits outward signs of the importance of winning being dominant over the crucial need for health, or who do not take care of their bodies, may be at a high risk of losing their entire athletic careers due to eating-disorder-related illnesses or severe injuries. As the incidence of eating disorders continues to be on the rise in this country, it is important for trainers to be able to recognize signs and symptoms of eating disorders, such as weight loss, fatigue, over-training, refusing to eat with the team, frequent injuries, and low self-esteem. A first step in a healthier direction is purposely not weighing an athlete, thus not enabling her to consider the number as defining her excellence. If we focus on positive aspects such as increased strength, or observing an increase in an athlete’s mental capabilities when in a competitive arena, we can begin to build a dynamic of striving for excellence instead of perfection.

Open Doors, Open Minds

If we are training a team of competitive female athletes, the importance of meeting these young women where they are takes on an even greater importance. By striving to create an atmosphere of safety, both physical and emotional, a trainer instantly becomes more approachable. Encourage the competitors to speak out when they feel a training session has become overly rigorous or demanding, truly listen to what is being said, and be willing to alter regimens accordingly. Consider enlisting the help of a sports psychologist, ideally one who has been trained in working with athletes and eating disorders. Often they can present ideas in a different light, one that may be well received by young teens. Above all, remember that our success is not dependent upon an athlete winning a gold medal. We must always, first and foremost, consider the athlete’s health, physical and emotional safety, and self-image while training and coaching.

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Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at [email protected] She welcomes your feedback and your comments!
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