How the Demands in Athletic Competition Fuel Disordered Eating
It’s easy to grasp how an athlete may develop an eating disorder. Competition among athletes is fierce, and the pressure to meet the perceived physical appearance standards or weight requirements of a sport can be unrelenting. In fact, according to a 2004 study from Norway, athletes are far more likely to develop an ED than the general public. The study found that 14% of the 1,620 athletes evaluated had an active ED, versus 5% of the general population. In addition, the study showed a higher incident of ED in female athletes, with a prevalence among athletes in leanness-dependent and weight-dependent sports.
Although eating disorders do occur in every sport, athletes who participate in what are referred to as “lean sports” tend to be more susceptible to acquiring an eating disorder. Those sports include gymnastics, wrestling, cycling, running, ballet, diving, rowing, jockeying, and martial arts. These particular sports tend to have a weight-class requirement, such as wrestling, or a standard that promotes low body weight for peak performance, such as cycling.
Why do Athletes Develop Eating Disorders?
Along with the stringent demands involved in being a competitive athlete that may drive some toward disordered eating habits to accommodate the physical standard for the sport, personality traits also factor in. “The traits found in those with anorexia are also often found in high-performing athletes,” states Dr. James Greenblatt, chief medical officer at Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, Massachusetts. Greenblatt continues, “These traits include high self-expectations, perfectionism, competitiveness, hyperactivity, preoccupation with weight and dieting, and a tendency toward depression.”
Disordered eating among athletes, as in the general population, is caused by complex factors, including psychological, behavioral, environmental, and genetics. In sports, some participants may go to unhealthy lengths to control their weight, influenced by such factors as:
- Demands for peak performance, including speed and agility
- Aesthetic demands, such as grace and beauty in dance or gymnastics
- Pressure from coaches, judges, peers, and teammates to have a certain body size and shape and who emphasize only performance and success
- Form-fitting athletic attire
- Training for a sport from a young age
- Public weigh ins
- Media images of top athletes that present a stereotypical body image for a sport
The Consequences of ED among Athletes
These pressures can cause an athlete to go to any means necessary to shed pounds in a short period of time. Binging and purging or starving oneself of important calories and nutrients becomes a de facto method to achieving the weight or physical appearance required by their sport. By engaging in such unhealthy dietary practices, the athlete may become more prone to injury, having the net result of a shortened career.
In female athletes, the lack of appropriate nutrition can cause detrimental health effects, referred to as the Female Athlete Triad. This includes disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis. The process begins with the disordered eating, which can result in a female athlete ceasing to menstruate (amenorrhea), which in turn may cause calcium and bone loss that can lead to stress fractures of the bones (osteoporosis). Male athletes battling an ED may have an increased incidence of co-morbid depression and substance abuse.
How Can Eating Disorders be prevented in the Sports Community?
Those with key roles in the athletic community have a responsibility to be proactive about addressing the dangers and prevalence of eating disorders. Many turn a blind eye, considering disordered eating as part and parcel of participation in competitive sports. In some instances, the coaches themselves are to blame for triggering an ED by belittling comments toward their athletes about body size and shape, or by public weigh-ins where peers can humiliate a fellow athlete.
Those in power positions, like a coach, have the opportunity to address the ED and to influence the athlete back to healthy eating habits. Effective coaches exhibit responsible eating habits themselves, and emphasize health and wellbeing over the destructive success-at-all-costs mantra. In doing so they provide positive examples to their young athletes that promote healthy lifestyles in addition to athletic performance.
We Can Help
At Casa Serena our expert treatment specialists are available to treat athletes who are battling an eating disorder. These compassionate professionals are trained in treating the specific issues related to participating in competitive sports, helping the athlete to reclaim a balanced and healthy approach toward the demands of their sport. Call today for a discreet consultation at (925) 682-8252.
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