Disordered Eating in Athletes
By Nancy Brinch, MS, RD, LSW
Most athletes view food as a fuel that supports their efforts
to attain their highest possible athletic performance. But some
athletes find themselves obsessing
about food, weight and exercise. They worry about what they are
going to eat. They worry about what they ate and think they shouldn't
have eaten. They feel guilty if they eat foods they do not consider
healthy or if they eat normal portion sizes. They exercise compulsively
to burn the calories they consume at meals and snacks. They do
not allow themselves to enjoy social eating with friends out of
fear they may consume too many calories.
Restrictive eating can have a negative impact on athletic performance.
While it is true that carrying an extra ten or fifteen pounds
can impair athletic performance, it is also true that being ten
or fifteen pounds underweight can have negative consequences -
reduced energy and endurance, weaker muscles, stress fractures,
getting pushed around the field or court, as well as increased
time spent obsessing about food and exercise.
An athlete who does not meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating
disorder can still show signs and symptoms of disordered eating
that can impair physical and mental health as well as athletic
performance. The National Eating Disorders Association suggests
you ask yourself the following questions:
Do you constantly calculate numbers of fat grams, grams
of carbohydrate and calories?
Do you weigh yourself often and find yourself obsessed with
the number on the scale?
Are you afraid of gaining weight?
Do you exercise because you have to and not because you
Do your eating patterns include extreme dieting, preferences
for certain healthy" foods, withdrawn or ritualized behavior
at mealtime or secretive bingeing?
Do you avoid eating meals or snacks when you're around other
Have weight loss, dieting and/or control of food become
one of your major concerns?
Do you feel ashamed, disgusted or guilty after eating?
Do you feel like your identity and value is based on how
you look or how much you weigh?
Do you worry about the weight, shape or size of your body?
Do you ever feel out of control when you are eating?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions you may be experiencing
disordered eating. It is very likely these attitudes and behaviors
are taking a toll on your physical and mental well-being. These
behaviors can quickly get out of control and develop into an eating
disorder if they are not recognized and dealt with appropriately.
What causes disordered eating?
There are many reasons disordered eating develops. Most people
with disordered eating feel they are inadequate. Dieting helps
them to feel more powerful and to feel a greater sense of achievement
and control. Not eating is a way to feel more special and unique,
to feel more perfect. These individuals tend
to think that if they can lose weight they will be happier. By
not eating enough food to satisfy their physical hunger and to
maintain a healthy weight, they find themselves continually thinking
about food and their weight. Their preoccupation with thoughts
of food and body image protects them from feeling and dealing
with more difficult issues such as unhappy emotions. Our society
teaches us that we should always feel happy and never experience
anger or sadness. This is not realistic. It is normal to experience
problems and setbacks in life. Persons with disordered eating
unconsciously use dieting and over-exercising to avoid feeling
these negative emotions instead of acknowledging them and searching
for ways to solve their problems.
Ways to Deal With Disordered Eating
If you think you may be dealing with disordered eating, discussing
your concerns with a professional is the first step in overcoming
this problem. Athletes at Stockton can start with the Athletic
Training Staff. Students and Athletes at Richard Stockton College
can schedule appointments with the doctor, a counselor and with
the campus nutritionist in the Wellness Center free of charge.
These professionals will discuss your concerns with you, tell
you whether you have disordered eating or an eating disorder,
and guide you through the recovery process.
If you think a friend may have disordered eating or an eating
disorder, you should discuss your concerns with your friend in
a caring way. Set aside a time to talk in a place where there
will be no distractions. Explain your concerns using as examples
a few behavioral instances that indicate why you are worried about
your friend's health and safety. Use "I" statements ("I'm concerned
because you never eat lunch and dinner.") Avoid "You" statements
("You are exercising too much.") "You" statements can place shame,
blame and guilt on the person. Avoid suggesting simple solutions
("You just have to eat.") Instead, acknowledge that this is a
difficult problem that may require the help of a health professional.
Offer to go with your friend to the first appointment if you and
your friend feel comfortable doing so. If your friend denies there
is a problem or refuses to seek help and you are still worried
about your friend's health and safety, schedule an appointment
with a health professional to discuss your concerns.
Richard Stockton College students can schedule a free and confidential
appointment with a counselor by calling Counseling Services at
(609) 652 - 4722. They can schedule a free and confidential appointment
with a doctor or the nutritionist by calling Health Services at
(609) 652- 4701.
Other helpful resources include:
Something Fishy Web Site
Extensive online information and recovery support for individuals
and loved ones.
National Eating Disorders Web Site
Information, educational materials, referrals.
Online bookstore for eating disorders.