Teen Athletes And Eating Disorders

Teen athletes may be at an increased risk for developing an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Sports like gymnastics, dance, diving, wrestling and figure skating may, in general, see participants at a higher risk for developing teen eating disorders. These sports may place a higher emphasis on the teen athlete’s appearance, size or diet. Fortunately, residential or day treatment programs for teens can provide appropriate treatment, support and guidance on the path to recovery.

Teens who are dealing with bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa symptoms often face challenges with their mental and physical health and well-being. Treatment at a residential or day treatment center can help alleviate the negative symptoms of eating disorders, such as:

  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low heart rate
  • Osteoporosis
  • Dehydration
  • Anemia
  • Malnutrition
  • Damage to the kidneys, heart and brain
  • Erosion of tooth enamel
  • Pancreatitis
  • High cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Damage to the esophagus
  • Seizures and neurological problems
  • Heart failure
  • Coma

The good news is that coaches and parents who are involved with the teen athlete can play a crucial role in getting help at a residential or day treatment center. Early intervention, one option being specialized day treatment (depending on severity of disorder), has been found to play a crucial role in eating disorder recovery. This is why it is important that parents and coaches learn to identify the signs of an eating disorder in teens. Here are some of the most common symptoms:

Behavioral Signs

  • Preoccupation with body weight or size
  • Restrictive eating patterns
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Refusing to eat in front of others
  • Cooking elaborate meals for others, but not eating themselves
  • Ritualistic eating patterns
  • Binging or purging after meals
  • Continuing to exercise or train even when injured or sick
  • Excessive water intake
  • Perfectionism or obsessiveness about performance  
  • Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time
  • Hoarding or hiding food

Physical Signs

  • Decreased energy
  • Loss of menstruation in females
  • Large fluctuations in weight
  • Muscle weakness, dizziness or feeling faint
  • Persistently low blood pressure
  • More frequent injuries, such as muscle sprains and tears

Psychological Signs

  • Mood swings or irritability
  • Becoming increasingly secretive or isolated
  • An intense fear of gaining weight
  • Feeling guilty after eating

How To Help A Teen With An Eating Disorder

Coaches and parents who are concerned about a teen athlete should intervene. Day treatment programs for teens is one potential treatment option for teens with eating disorders. Day treatment can help reduce the risk of complications from these types of disorders. *Please speak with an eating disorder professional to ensure your loved one is receiving the appropriate level of treatment (i.e. residential versus day treatment).

Coaches and parents who are concerned about a teen athlete should try to sit down and talk with the athlete about their concerns. Hopefully, the coach has good rapport with the student and is able to discuss treatment options, including day treatment, honestly and openly. The coach should talk with the teen in private, away from peers and other students. Parents and coaches should both communicate with the teen in a straightforward and objective manner, stating the concerning behaviors they have observed. Coaches and parents should not judge or criticize the athlete for their behaviors. Coaches should encourage the teen to talk to their parents about the behaviors (i.e. “I have noticed you are eating significantly less throughout the day.) Coaches might offer to have a sit down with the athlete and parents to talk about treatment options, including day treatment programs for teens.  

Coaches and parents should both be prepared for the possibility that the athlete will deny an eating disorder. Many adolescents and teens with eating disorders do not recognize that they need help. Others are ashamed and embarrassed about the behaviors. There can also be lot of anxiety surrounding eating disorders. The teen may have intense fears about not being able to engage in eating disorder behaviors if they attend day treatment or residential treatment.

If a coach suspects that a teen has an eating disorder, and the teen denies or is reluctant to talk about it, then the coach should talk to the teen’s parents or guardian about their concerns and the need for eating disorder treatment, either at a residential level or in day treatment. The goal would be to encourage the parents to research potential treatment options and speak to an admissions specialist to learn more about eating disorder treatment and recovery. Parents should reach out to learn more about the options, either at a residential level or a day treatment center.