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18 Signs Your Student-Athlete Has an Eating Disorder... and What to do About it

What words come to mind when you’re describing your student-athletes?

Motivated? Driven? Dedicated?

Many athletes have these traits. They help them train daily with focus so they can consistently perform well.

I’ll often hear parent’s talk about how their kids will go to practice and put in extra hours on days off and weekends. They want to perfect their skills and are willing to put in many long hours to do it.

Sometimes that level of perfectionism shows up in their eating habits too. Is it a bad thing? It could be that your athlete is choosing his or her foods based on preferences. Or they are in tune with which foods affect their bodies. Some have adopted a specific eating pattern they believe will better their performance.

How do you figure out why they're choosing what they are?

It's not as easy as you think. Paying careful attention to the signs can help you figure out if choices are preference or something more dangerous.

Many athletes deal with the pressure of wanting to be lean, athletic and perfect in every way. This combined with our societies obsession with thinness can affect our student-athletes.

Lowered self-esteem and negative thoughts about body image can lead to disordered eating. Patterns of disordered eating involved small changes and restrictions in food.

It often starts during adolescence when the body is rapidly changing. Not everyone is comfortable with that change. Many athletes strive for a specific body type. Often idolizing lean, muscular frames that they believe will enhance performance.

To reach their goals, some athlete’s will over-exercise, restrict food or worse. These habits can start as early as age nine and affect both genders. Disordered eating signs include avoiding or restricting types of food. If not addressed, disordered eating can turn into a full blown eating disorder.

This is a serious problem for anyone, but is especially serious during growth. Student-athletes are at a very unique stage in development.

Their bodies are still growing and have higher energy and nutrient requirements to support proper growth. Add in hours of training and their needs are much higher than at any other time in life. By restricting food intake, areas such as performance, growth and development suffer.

Disordered eating doesn’t always mean an eating disorder will manifest, but it is a warning. Keep an eye out for your student-athlete to make sure it is not a more serious issue.

There are many different types of eating disorders that exist. Here is a short breakdown of each one:

Anorexia Nervosa (AN): Characterized by self-starvation, low body weight or fear of gaining weight. For girls, missing or ceased periods are common.

Bulimia Nervosa (BN): Those with BN often eat large quantities of food followed by purging. Purging can occur by vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretics, fasting or compulsive exercise. Those with BN may be underweight, normal or overweight.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED): Binging excessive amounts of foods/calories without purging. May cause weight gain.

Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS): Can be a combination of many different symptons of an eating disorder, but do not fit into one specific category.

Anorexia Athletica: A term often used with athletes who have eating disorder symptoms and compulsively exercise to manage weight.

Orthorexia Nervosa: Obsessed about only eating “healthy” or “clean” foods. Will refuse to eat anything processed.

So now that we know about the different types of eating disorders, how do we identify if someone we know has one?

The following are common signs and symptoms of an eating disorder:

  1. Drastic weight loss

  2. Body dissatisfaction; comments about often feeling or looking fat

  3. Constant fatigue or tiredness

  4. Longer recovery time needed

  5. Avoiding drinking water, dehydration

  6. Increased irritation or impatience

  7. Intense fear of weight gain

  8. Guilt or shame after meals

  9. Obsessiveness about weight, calories and macronutrients

  10. Intense anxiety and/or depression

  11. Restricting food groups, chronic dieting

  12. Avoiding meals, refusal to eat in public

  13. Excessive or compulsive exercise habits

  14. Abusing medication such as laxatives or diuretics

  15. Complaints of dizziness or fainting spells

  16. Decline in performance

  17. Compulsive weighing or body fat checks

At this point, most parents and coaches are wondering what they should and shouldn't do to help.

A big mistake made is focusing on weight-related outcomes in athletes. Help protect and encourage body acceptance by minimizing importance of appearance and thinness. Instead, encourage a sports nutrition plan and non-weight related benefits. Examples include reduced stress, improved performance, recovery time, mood and quality of sleep.

If you suspect your student-athlete has an eating disorder, seek guidance. Approach the subject with compassion and sensitivity. A multidisciplinary team familiar with treating eating disorders is likely needed. This includes a physician, therapist and dietitian in most cases.

Recovery from an eating disorder takes time. It is often a long process that not only involves normalizing weight (if needed) as well as increasing body acceptance and self-confidence.

Do you know a student-athlete with an eating disorder?


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