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Often when someone says “young athlete” we think of a strong, fast kid who excels in – or at least is passionate about – their chosen sport. We don’t often think of “eating disorder”.

Unfortunately, maybe we should. Focusing on a certain appearance or weighing a certain amount in order to perform better can, and often does, lead to eating disorders in young athletes. scary mom reached out to Lauren Antonucci, MS, RDN, CSSD, CDE, CDN, owner and director of Nutrition Energy, and Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDS, psychotherapist and founder of Intuitive Psychotherapy NYC, to understand what parents and coaches need to know about young athletes and eating disorders.

Signs of an Eating Disorder in Young Athletes

Eating disorder is an umbrella term that includes several different types of disordered eating behaviors and thoughts. Most often, when we think of eating disorders, we think of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. Each of these conditions presents very differently and as such can have different symptoms or warning signs.

However, there are some signs that parents can watch out for. Antonucci advises parents, families and coaches to watch for mood swings (including irritability, anxiety and depression), increased fatigue, lack of concentration, excessive food talk , weight or “being healthy” and/or withdrawal from friends. and families. She also notes that avoiding meals and/or making excuses to avoid eating with others can be a sign of an eating disorder.

“Young athletes, or any other athlete for that matter, shouldn’t worry so much about healthy eating that they limit their ability to eat regular meals, snacks with friends, and their favorite foods, including desserts! This are not signs of a dedicated, disciplined athlete…but they are signs of an eating disorder that really need to be recognized and treated with the help of trained professionals.

An often overlooked sign, according to Roth-Goldberg, is stiffness around food. She writes: “While everyone is entitled to food preferences, a lack of flexibility and hyper control over what one eats is often a sign that someone is struggling with an eating disorder or an eating disorder.”

Parents and caregivers can also pay attention to changes in weight, skin, hair and nails caused by eating disorder-induced malnutrition. In people who menstruate, missed or abnormal periods are another potential warning sign.

Eating disorders can affect all children, but some sports have higher incidences

Eating disorders affect young athletes regardless of their age, the sport they participate in or the family life that awaits them after training. “[They] can develop in any young athlete from any family – they don’t discriminate,” wrote Antonucci, who noted that eating disorders can start in children as young as ten. year.

Although eating disorders do not discriminate between sports, some sports tend to increase the incidence of eating disorders in athletes who participate in them. According to Antonucci, “Any sport in which there is a perception of ‘lighter is faster’ or ‘lighter is better’ (as in weight class sports, sports that require jumps, etc.) , and or [those that] have an aesthetic component are more at risk.

These include: swimming, diving, volleyball, rowing, dancing, gymnastics, running, bodybuilding and figure skating. The fight too. Because “yes, boys and men also have eating disorders,” writes Roth-Goldberg.

Long-term consequences of untreated eating disorders

While there are undoubtedly a number of long-term benefits for children participating in sports (including improved self-esteem and confidence, building strength and learning to teamwork), when the focus on body and weight leads to eating disorders, there can also be a number of long-term health issues.

Untreated, eating disorders can cause a number of health problems, including impaired thyroid function, altered levels of the hormones that regulate appetite, decreased insulin, the hormone growth and testosterone, and an increase in cortisol, writes Antonucci. Eventually, young athletes with untreated eating disorders will face more bone injuries, broken bones, abnormal menstrual functions, heart abnormalities, and impaired bone health. Ultimately, all body systems can be affected.

How to ask for help

As important as awareness is, it is equally important to remember that there is no one to blame. It is not the fault of the child, nor the fault of the parents, when (or if) an eating disorder occurs. Antonucci writes: “There is no blame here, only recovery.”

And the sooner that recovery is sought, the better.

Roth-Goldberg urges families to seek help from a professional who understands “the demands and desires of athletes.” She highlights family-based therapy (FBT) and writes that it is “the most effective treatment for eating disorders in young people”.

Coaches can also play a preventive role. Nicholas R. Farrell, PhD, Clinical Director of Oconomowoc Campus of Rogers Behavioral Health and Eating Disorders Services noted that “athletic mentors can actively discourage the stereotype that a certain weight or body type is necessary for success.” Additionally, they can “encourage and model healthy eating habits, which includes meeting your body’s energy needs and allowing for a wide variety of different foods.”

Eating disorders aren’t really about food, writes Antonucci. They are often the result of stress, anxiety, trauma, or mental illness. But these are not hopeless situations. Young athletes, parents and their families can get help. They just need to know when and where to ask.

“If you suspect your child may be suffering from an eating disorder or heading down the path of disordered eating or what we call an ‘unhealthy relationship with food’, please do your child a favor. and don’t ignore it,” urges Antonucci. It could make all the difference.