Eating Disorders and Young Athletes

Man talking to teenage boy on sports field.

As many parents know, playing organized sports has many benefits for kids. Children who splay sports get regular exercise and develop new friendships with team members. Playing sports can boost self-esteem. It also teaches teamwork and leadership lessons.

But sometimes being on a team that focuses too heavily on performance, or on how kids look, can have a negative effect. In some cases it may trigger an eating disorder.

About eating disorders

An eating disorder is a health condition. It’s when someone has an unhealthy obsession with food, weight, and how he or she looks. These are common types of eating disorders:

  • Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is marked by repeated episodes of eating huge amounts of food at one time (binge eating). This is followed by feeling extreme guilt and getting the food out of the body (purging). The purging may include self-induced vomiting, extreme exercise, fasting, or diuretic or laxative use.

  • Anorexia nervosa. With this eating disorder, a person has extreme thinness, severe calorie restriction, a severely distorted body image, an extreme fear of weight gain, and denial.

  • Binge-eating disorder. This disorder is linked to a loss of control over eating. People with this eat huge amounts of food at a time without purging. They feel extreme shame and guilt afterward.

Sports and eating disorders

Eating disorders tend to affect female athletes and girls more often than males. But boys can also suffer from eating disorders.

Young male and female athletes who play in sports that focus on individual performance, appearance, diet, and weight requirements tend to be at a greater risk for having an eating disorder. Such competitive sports include:

  • Swimming and diving

  • Bodybuilding

  • Wrestling

  • Gymnastics

  • Running

  • Dancing

  • Figure skating

  • Crew (rowing)

  • Beach volleyball

These factors can increase the risk that a young athlete will develop an eating disorder:

  • Misconceptions that being thinner makes you a better athlete

  • Having a coach who focuses on competition and success rather than sportsmanship and the "whole person"

  • Having suffered physical or sexual abuse or another trauma

  • Having low self-esteem

  • Feeling family pressure to be thin

  • Having family members with eating disorders

  • Constant dieting

What parents can do

As a parent, you can give unconditional love and support. This lets your children know that you value them for who they are, not how they look. Promote a positive body image by setting a good example. Avoid talking about dieting or making critical remarks about your own body, like "I look so fat in these jeans." That kind of attitude can affect your children.

  • To protect young athletes against eating disorders, you can also:

  • Encourage young athletes to focus on healthy ways to improve their performance. This includes working on their physical strength and mental attitude.

  • Check that their coaches are a positive influence and never make derogatory comments about weight. Use coaches that stress motivation and enthusiasm rather than body size and shape. Also make sure that coaches can spot the warning signs of eating disorders.

  • Keep a watch on social influences and teammates. Make sure they are promoting healthy beliefs about weight, diet, and self-image. Also that there are no improper social pressures linked to these same areas. 

  • Discourage frequent weigh-ins, and stress health and fitness over a certain number on the scale.

  • Watch out for symptoms of eating disorders. These include unusual or obsessive behaviors regarding food or exercise, changes in weight, and changes in skin, hair, and nails caused by malnutrition. Disordered eating can also lead to abnormal or missed periods in young women and calcium and bone loss. These things put young women at higher risk for broken bones (fractures) and other bone problems. If you have any concerns, take your child to see his or her healthcare provider. 

  • Seek help from a mental health professional right away if your child shows warning signs of an eating disorder or an obsession with being thin.