Disordered eating and sport psychology is a serious topic today, as the consequences for the athlete is not only immediate but can also lead to serious health issues over the long run. When we think of athletes we often think of a well trained and fit person, not realizing that often underneath the surface lies a dangerous problem. When people think of disordered eating it usually brings up images of the severe clinical eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, but disordered eating, is often much harder to pin point because the physical symptoms are less evident. As the name implies disordered eating does not necessarily mean a person has gotten to the extent of clinical eating disorders, it simply means they have a disordered view and behavior associated with food.
So what leads an athlete, who has a finely tuned body to start down the path of disordered eating? Often it can start when an athlete is in a sport that requires a certain look, or when the athlete begins to go through puberty which can potentially shift an athletes ability to perform the technical parts of their sport. Some might get it back, but for others it can be difficult, and if they see that a change in their body is the problem they might try and change it back to fix the problem.
Other reasons an athlete might take control over their dietary intake:
- Pressure to “fit in”
- Need to gain control over an aspect of their life
- Technical elements which may be easier with altered body weight
- Perfectionist attitude or personality
- Negative self image or low self-esteem
Research has identified four risk factors:
Sport task: fear of being physically assessed, wearing specific uniform for the sport
Sport environment: comments from teammates, coaches, parents or judges
Biological characteristics: individuals metabolism and physical size
Psychological characteristic: self-esteem, body image, anxiety, stress levels
The immediate consequences of disordered eating can be a lack of focus, which can lead to potential injuries and overall decrease in performance level. However, it is the long term consequences that are more concerning, if the disordered eating is continued for an extended period of time.
Long term health problems:
- Reduction in bone strength
- Reduced cognitive functioning
- Reduced menstruation in females (NCAA, 2008)
- Negative self-perception / self-image
- Emotional issues / mood swings
- Heightened anxiety and stress levels
- Secrecy and isolation
- Reduction in energy intake
- Lack of progression in the sport / leaving the sport
Disordered eating in sports is a serious problem, and while it might provide some immediate results for the athlete to improve their performance, the health risks are far too great. If you or a loved one is struggling with this problem please reach out to a health care professional who can help you.
Here are some resources to help: