Eating disorders are an epidemic in the United States today. One population increasingly at risk for developing anorexia or bulimia is athletes. Athletes are far more prone to eating disorders than non-athletes—especially for females—but it has been a growing concern for males, too.
The risk increases significantly for those involved in sports that necessitate a certain body type or weight and when success tends to be more appearance-based than performance-based. This includes sports such as ice skating, gymnastics, ballet and other forms of dance, track and field, wrestling, bodybuilding, swimming, and more.
The short and long-term medical consequences are enormous for athletes with eating disorders. Extricating oneself from an eating disorder may prove challenging for an athlete. However, adhering to certain guidelines can be extremely helpful.
- tell a trustworthy friend, teammate, or coach
- get connected with a comprehensive treatment team
- make recovery your first priority
- follow the advice of your medical/treatment team
- believe that being the real you is best
- try to do it all alone
- keep it a secret
- lie about it
- weigh yourself
- believe these unhealthy behaviors will make you better
Telling a close friend, teammate, or trustworthy coach how they can be of help to you throughout this time is very important. A friend or teammate who knows what’s going on can be someone to talk to and a support to you, while a coach can help pay attention to your performance and needs if you continue to participate in the sport. In addition, let them know what may prove to be a trigger in your recovery.
This treatment team should include specialists in all aspects of your life and your eating disorder. Look to your family, your coach and athletic administration, a nutritionist, a primary care physician, psychiatrist, and an eating disorder therapist for a comprehensive team who can help and support you on your road to recovery.
We know this can be very difficult for an athlete who loves his or her sport, but whatever you put before your health and recovery, you will eventually lose. The eating disorder will win in the end unless you make recovery your first priority.
Regarding limits on training or sport participation, your medical and treatment team knows what is best for you. They do have your best interest at heart. Follow their advice and honor the restrictions they put on your activity level. It likely won't be fun, but such restriction is there to protect your recovering body.
First of all, you are not your eating disorder. It does not define you. Secondly, you also don’t have to be a modified version of yourself to do well in your sport, and an eating disorder can and will modify you, but not for the better. You are a good, strong, talented, and capable person. Severely altering your relationship with food (resulting in an eating disorder) will not make you a better version of who and what you already are.
Achieving recovery from an eating disorder is not easy. Getting support from family, friends and others in your life is absolutely necessary. If you feel that getting understanding or support from certain family members or friends will be difficult, yet you still want those people in your life to know and understand what you’re going through, work with a trusted counselor or therapist with a background in eating disorder treatment. The counselor can sit down with you and your family or friends, and talk in detail about your disorder, help you answer questions about what is going on in order to help them understand, explain what your treatment and recovery will be like, and what kind of support you will need.
There is no shame in having an eating disorder. Whether you are struggling with it before treatment, or going through recovery, keeping it a secret doesn’t help anyone. Don’t be afraid to talk about it and be open with those closest to you. They will have questions, and the more open you are about this aspect of your life, the more your loved ones will be able to talk about it with you. Be as open about it as you want, but do be open and don’t keep the eating disorder and your recovery and treatment a secret.
Your family, friends, and treatment providers will have to ask a lot of questions in order to help you the best they can. Don’t lie about engaging in eating disorder behaviors. Shame can cause anyone to lie, and in turn, it would keep you from getting the help you need. Those who truly love you and can appropriately help you will not hold shame over you, so don’t hold the shame yourself, and be honest so you can get the treatment you need.
Turn this task over to your nutritionist and medical treatment team. Weighing yourself as you might have in the past can bring back any number of negative thoughts and feelings you have felt before while standing on the bathroom scale. Toss the scale out the window and don’t worry about your weight. That’s not your job in your recovery and treatment.
It’s not uncommon for athletes to believe the lie that they will be able to be at their best performance in a sport if they engage in behaviors such as restricting food consumption, purging, bingeing, over-exercise, diet pill or laxative use, prescription drug misuse, etc. They are all incredibly unhealthy behaviors and practices that ravage the human body. They won’t help a person improve at a sport—much less achieve a strong and healthy body.
Athleticism is seemingly so positive—especially in our country where obesity is such a growing concern. However, there is a dark side to the world of athletics. Eating disorders are more prevalent than ever, particularly in certain types of sport. Recovery from any food-related disorder is possible for an athlete.