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Eating Disorders

Are you or your child suffering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and other eating disorders?
Center for Discovery can help. Center for Discovery has been helping teens and adolescents with eating disorders for over 17 years. Call toll free: 1-855-324-9428.

Athletics and Eating Disorders

There is strong and consistent evidence that eating disorders are prevalent in sport and especially in weight sensitive sports such as endurance, weight category and aesthetic sports as well as jumping events. In endurance sports such as long-distance running, leanness is related to better performance. Secondly, in weight category sports such as martial arts, boxing and wrestling, athletes will not be allowed to compete if their weight is above the upper limit for that category. This can create considerable pressure to achieve the necessary weight loss and often in a very short period of time. Thirdly, in sports such as gymnastics and high board diving, an aesthetic evaluation is attached to a particular body composition which is then promoted and encouraged in competitors. Major studies have consistently reported higher prevalence rates in these groups of sports. An athlete with an eating disorder can expect to be more prone to injury, and to have a shorter sports career that is troubled by inconsistent performances.

Athletes develop eating disorders for the same reasons that others do. There may be individual genetic and/or psychological vulnerability, socio-cultural pressures relating to diet, food and body image and non-specific psychological stressors which can act as triggering events. The sports environment can add to these risks in several ways especially in endurance, weight category and aesthetic sports. Other factors have also been described, for example the revealing nature of much sports clothing, the intense competitiveness of sports participants which can extend to competitive thinness, specializing in one sport at an early age and sudden increases in training volume.

In the world of sport there are identification difficulties. An athlete whose body composition results from anorexia rather than athleticism will be harder to spot. Athletes will also be expected and encouraged to eat in unusual ways. For most this will simply be another aspect of the pursuit of sporting excellence. For some it will herald a progression from unusual eating patterns (which are normal in a sporting population) to more clearly disordered and pathological dietary measures. It can be difficult to distinguish ‘athletic’ from ‘disordered’ eating and there is no clear cut-off point. Some distinguishing characteristics have been described. ‘Athletic’ eating is more likely to be directed towards improved performance rather than weight loss or altered body shape. There is more emphasis on what needs to be eaten than what is forbidden and eating habits ‘normalize’ in the close season and on retirement.

An athlete with a possible eating disorder should be approached early, directly, supportively and confidentially. An athlete who is making good progress in therapy may be in a position to resume sports participation similar to an athlete returning to a sport after a serious injury. Returning to a light training load is the first step and as recovery progresses the training load increases until eventually the athlete is ready to return to competition. It is occasionally necessary to consider offering athletes support to leave the sports environment. It may simply be too toxic and too likely to promote relapse, or the disorder itself is so severe that returning is inadvisable.

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