In this 2nd part in the series we look at the causes and warning signs of eating disorders, how it affects performance and how to assist an athlete who presents with an eating disorder.
Causes of Eating Disorders in young Athletes
There is no single cause of eating disorders or disordered eating in young athletes. It is often characterised by a belief that a low body weight would enhance athletic success. This belief starts the cycle of dieting and adoption of restrictive and unhealthy eating behaviour. The pressures and demands of certain sports or training programmes or the pressure by coaches to lose weight may trigger an eating disorder in individuals at risk.
Contributing factors for disturbed eating behaviours include:
- Body image dissatisfaction
- Body distortion
- Psychological issues, eg. depression, anxiety disorders and low self-esteem
- Adverse childhood experiences, eg. abuse, bullying and discrimination
- Media influence that constantly promote thinness and muscularity as beautiful or healthy through television, movies and magazines
- Peer influences including popularity, social status, peer teasing about weight and peer encouragement for weight loss
- Familial influences including benign comments from parents regarding their own weight, playful comments regarding the child’s weight or suggestions toward the child to lose weight
- Early onset of puberty with typical increased body fat in females
- Sports that emphasize leanness, eg. gymnastics, dance, cross-country, track and wrestling
- A certain personality type also can contribute to an increase risk, namely individuals with a low self-esteem and a high need for approval. High achieving individuals with a highly competitive side and a tendency towards perfectionism and obsessiveness also are at a higher risk.
Warning Signs that could reveal early onset of an eating disorder include:
- Unexplained losses in performance
- An obsession with body image, shape and weight with repeated comments about being fat or dissatisfaction with body image
- Weight loss or lack of weight gain with increased height.
- Constant use of weighting scales
- Missing meals or pretending to eat or not eating in social gatherings, such as road trips, pre-game meals, post-game celebrations and athletic banquets
- An obsession with quantities or proportions of food in the diet
- Rapid mood swings
- Over exercising or exercising when injured
- Frequent trips to the bathroom
- Evidence of interest in or use of diet pills, energy pills, steroids or other unhealthy substances designed alter body weight or shape, or to increase strength
Effects of Eating Disorders on Health and Performance
Eating disorders can lead to:
- Amenorrhoea (cessation of periods) and infertility in females
- Heart problems, such as abnormal heart rhythm, low blood pressure and cardiac failure
- Osteoporosis, weakened bones, risk of fracture
- Erosion of dental enamel
- Gastrointestinal problems such as peptic ulcers
- Kidney problems
- Low white blood cell count and poor immunity
- Metabolic problems
- Difficulty maintaining body temperature
The athlete may initially experience an improvement in performance indicators. The use of stimulants such as caffeine to suppress hunger and maintain energy can have an initial ergogenic effect. Restrictive eating will although eventually influence performance negatively. Glycogen and nutrient stores become chronically depleted with increased fatigue and a drop in performance. Without enough protein to maintain and repair muscle, there will be a loss of lean body mass, strength and endurance. The athlete becomes more susceptible to injury, illness and infection.
Helping an Athlete with an Eating Disorder
When an eating disorder or disordered eating pattern is suspected, plan a conversation with the athlete. Plan the conversation in a quiet time and place and think about the content of the conversation in advance. Be tactful, tread very gently and avoid accusations. Do not present “evidence”, confront them with accusations or try to “catch them out” to prove your case. Don’t make demands such as “stop doing this to yourself”. Just state your concern and your wish for them to seek help. Don’t try to cure their behaviour or give solutions –they need proper help from an expert. Have an eating disorders hotline number, website detail, brochure or book with you.
Look out for our final article on this subject, in which we will provide you with some preventative strategies and educational messages.