How To Recognize Eating Disorders In Young Athletes

by Elaine Roth

Often, when someone says “young athlete,” we think of a child who is strong and fast and excelling at —or at least passionate about—their chosen sport. We don’t often think “eating disorder.”

Unfortunately, maybe we should. The focus on looking a certain way or weighing a certain amount in order to better perform can, and often does, lead to eating disorders in young athletes. Scary Mommy got in touch with Lauren Antonucci, MS, RDN, CSSD, CDE, CDN, owner and director of Nutrition Energy, and Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDS, Psychotherapist and Founder of Intuitive Psychotherapy NYC, to understand what parents and coaches need to know about young athletes and eating disorders.

Signs of An Eating Disorder In Young Athletes

Eating disorder is an umbrella term that includes several different types of disordered eating behaviors and thoughts. Most commonly when we think of eating disorders we think of Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia nervosa, or Binge-eating disorder. Each of these conditions present very differently, and as such may have different symptoms or warning signs.

However, there are certain signs parents can look out for. Antonucci advises parents, families, and coaches to look out for mood changes (including irritability, anxiety, and depression), increased fatigue, poor concentration, excessive talk about food, weight, or “being healthy,” and/or a withdrawal from friends and families. She notes also that avoiding meals and/or making excuses to avoid eating with others may be a sign of an eating disorder.

“Young athletes, or any athletes for that matter, should not be overly concerned with eating healthfully to the point of it limiting their ability to eat regular meals, snacks with friends and their favorite foods-including desserts! Those are not signs of a dedicated and disciplined athlete…but are signs of an eating disorder that really must be acknowledged and addressed with the help of trained professionals.”

An often overlooked sign, according to Roth-Goldberg, is rigidity around food. She writes, “While everyone is entitled to food preferences, a lack of flexibility and a hyper controlling of what one eats is often a sign that someone is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder.”

Parents and caregivers can also look out for changes in weight, skin, hair, and nails caused by eating disorder induced malnutrition. In people who menstruate, missed or abnormal periods are another potential warning sign.

Eating Disorders Can Affect Any Children, But Certain Sports Have Higher Incidences

Eating disorders affect young athletes regardless of age, the sport they’re involved in, or the home life waiting for them after practice. “[They] can develop in any young athlete in any family—they do not discriminate,” wrote Antonucci, who noted that eating disorders can begin in children as young as ten.

While eating disorders don’t distinguish between sports, certain sports do tend to increase the incidence of eating disorders in the athletes who participate. According to Antonucci, “Any sport in which there is a perception of ‘lighter is faster’ or ‘lighter is better’ (as in weight class sports, sports that require jumping, etc…), and/or [those that] have an aesthetic component are at higher risk.”

These include: swimming, diving, volleyball, rowing, dancing, gymnastics, running, bodybuilding, and figure skating. Wrestling, too. Because “yes, boys and men have eating disorders, too,” writes Roth-Goldberg.

Long-Term Consequences of Untreated Eating Disorders

While there are undoubtedly a number of long-term benefits to children participating in sports, (including increased self-esteem and confidence, building strength, and learning how to work as a team), when the focus on bodies and weight results in disordered eating, there can be a number of long-term health issues, too.

Untreated, eating disorders can cause a number of health problems, including impaired thyroid function, altered levels of the hormones that regulate appetite, decreased insulin, growth hormone, and testosterone, and increased cortisol, Antonucci writes. Eventually, young athletes with untreated eating disorders will face more bone injuries, strike fractures, abnormal menstrual function, cardiac abnormalities, and weakened bone health. Ultimately, every system in the body can be impacted.

How To Seek Help

As important as awareness is, it’s equally important to remember that there is no one to blame. It is not the child’s fault, nor is it the parent’s fault, when (or if) an eating disorder occurs. Antonucci writes, “There is no blame here, only recovery.”

And the earlier that recovery is sought, the better.

Roth-Goldberg urges families to seek the help of a professional who understands “the demands and desires of athletes.” She highlights Family Based Therapy (FBT) and writes that it “is the most effective treatment for eating disorders among young people.”

Coaches can play a preventative role, as well. Nicholas R. Farrell, PhD, clinical director of Rogers Behavioral Health’s Oconomowoc campus and eating disorders services noted that “athletic mentors can actively discourage the stereotype that a certain weight or body type is necessary for success.” Additionally, they can “encourage and model healthy eating habits, which involves meeting your body’s energy needs and allowing for a wide variety of different foods.”

Eating disorders are not really about food, Antonucci writes. They are often the result of stress, anxiety, trauma, or mental illness. But they are not hopeless situations. Young athletes, parents, and their families can get help. They just need to know when and where to ask.

“If you suspect that your child may be suffering from an eating disorder or going down a path of disordered eating or what we call an ‘unhealthy relationship with food,’ please do your child a favor and do not ignore it,” urges Antonucci. It could make all the difference.