Here's what you need to know about disordered eating to help your athlete develop a healthy relationship with food and navigate their nutritional choices when it comes to eating to fuel their sport performance.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, among female high school athletes in aesthetic sports, 41.5 percent reported disordered eating. A study on female Division II college athletes showed that 25 percent had disordered eating, and the numbers were similar for their male counterparts.
As a coach or a parent of a competitive young athlete, these statistics are scary — and eye-opening. Armed with this knowledge, though, there are a lot of things that we can do to help athletes navigate the tricky issues of eating to fuel their sport performance while developing a healthy relationship with food.
As a mental performance consultant with the Canadian Sport Psychology Association, a registered clinical counselor, and a former professional triathlete, Danelle Kabush, PhD, has spent years observing and helping athletes work through issues around disordered eating. Here’s what she wants parents and coaches to think about when it comes to disordered eating habits and young athletes.
Remember, disordered eating isn’t the same thing as an eating disorder — there won’t necessarily be symptoms like binging and purging. As a coach or parent, you need to be aware not only of drastic weight changes, but also other physical and emotional warning signs, like “if they’re trying different diets, restricting certain foods, counting calories, or exercising beyond practice to ‘burn extra calories,’ versus eating for sport goals,” says Kabush.
In addition, Kabush recommends becoming aware of “when their thoughts constantly revolve around what they eat or don’t eat, and when they become focused on the idea that losing weight will mean they’re faster, stronger, or more popular.”
“When eating becomes the only thing that an athlete can control, that can be a warning sign that there’s something else going on in their lives. Those are all signs that point to disordered eating.”
It’s not always the ‘skinny’ athlete on the team suffering from food-related emotional issues. Any athlete on the team can be struggling with disordered eating, even if he or she hasn’t noticeably dropped weight.
“Outward appearance doesn’t mean anything, it’s about the internal monologue that an athlete has,” says Kabush. “And athletes are subject to more criticism and suggestion of what they ‘should’ be, so the ones who differ from that norm might actually be more susceptible than the ‘skinny’ kids on the team.”