Are High School Athletes Starving to Win?
Now that fall sports are in full swing, this seems like a timely topic. Most eating disorder professionals see an increase in referrals this time of year. The fall is a time of transition. For students, the potential for stress increases along with academic and social pressure. Additionally, many kids feel pressure around athletic performance. Female cross-country runners and those in performance sports such as gymnastics, dancing and figure skating are at a higher risk for developing eating disorders, specifically anorexia nervosa than the average population. Running is a sport where narrow hips and a thin frame provide a competetive advantage. Yet, this is a time when girls’ bodies are changing rapidly; body fat is increasing and hips are widening. A competetive runner may see her race times dip as a result.
Girls may feel compelled to lose weight as they compare their bodies to those of their teammates. They may also receive messages from coaches either directly and indirectly about their bodies. Do thinner girls get more of the coach’s attention? Are they getting lead roles or positions? Are they running faster or breezing through routines easier? In young female athletes, these messages can fuel destructive weight loss efforts and potentially eating disorders. Beyond the obvious physical and emotional consequences of these behaviors, girls who are engaging in dangerous dietiting behaviors and/or are at low weight are more at risk for serious injuries.
This week two of my adult patients shared how experiences in youth sports contributed to their eating disorders, one as a runner and one as a gymnast. Both of them defined themselves as athletes. Losing weight felt like a logical way to improve their bodies and performance and secure their competetive advantage. This article from the Washington Post does a great job summarizing the experience of young female cross-country runners through puberty In Prep Cross-Country, Girls Often Face Uphill Battle. Here, Kimiko Hirai Soldati, a 2004 Olympic diver talks in depth about her experience with bulimia Athletes’ hunger to win fuels eating disorders.
Does this mean all girls who participate in running or gymnastics will develop an eating disorder? Certainly not. However, it does make sense to look more closely for signs in these populations. Girls in judged sports – sports that score participants- have a 13% incidence of eating disorders compared to 3% in refereed sports (www.anad.org).
Here are a few proactive measures parents and caregivers can take: (1) Talk to coaches and get a sense of messages they are sending about weight, body image and nutrition, (2) Talk to your daughters directly to see how they’re feeling about body image, athletic performance and any pressures they may feel and (3) Be a good role model. This web page summarizes what signs to look for and offers ideas for coaches and trainers: Rader Programs: Eating Disorders and Athletes.