How can we tackle eating disorders in sport?
Taking part in sport has such obvious links to good physical and mental health, that it can be easy to forget that lurking tipping-point over from optimised nutrition into disordered eating and further down the rabbit hole into clinically recognised eating disorders. It’s a spectrum and something anyone working with athletes needs to keep an eye out for.
“Elite athletes would be viewed by most of the general population as ‘healthy’,” says government agency, UK Sport. “Whilst most athletes follow a training regime accompanied by a diet that supports health and performance, some will struggle with their weight.”
Anorexia nervosa, as one type of eating disorder, has been around since the 1800s and it’s still scarily prevalent today. As we’ve recently seen in BBC Three’s documentary series, Freeze, sports with a strong emphasis on aesthetics are all too familiar with the tipping balance along that spectrum. In 1994, former American champion gymnast Christy Henrich died of anorexia, weighing less than 3st 8lb, just three years after she retired from the sport at the age of 22.
But how are coaches, national governing bodies and others working with high-performing athletes supposed to recognise that slide into risky territory?
Education is key
NGB British Ice Skating reports that “One key tool in tackling body image pressures and eating disorders in ice skating is education. We require all coaches to complete continuing professional development sessions in order to be accredited to the organisation.”
To help support the sports industry with this important mission to educate both trainers and trainees in identifying, preventing, and challenging disordered eating before it becomes a serious problem, eCoach have teamed up with Dr Richard Allison for a new eLearning course, Tackling Eating Disorders in Sport.
No stranger to the prevalance of eating disorders in sport, Performance Nutrition Consultant, Dr Richard Allison, is the former Head of Performance Nutrition at Arsenal Football Club. A registered dietitian with the British Dietetic Association and member of the Sport and Exercise Nutritionist Register (SENr), he knows all there is to know about applied sports nutrition and clinical dietetics, and now specialises in eating disorders.
Anyone is at risk
In sports where a lean, strong body is essential for handling the manoeuvres, needing to be healthy on the inside too can sometimes be forgotten. Sports with the highest rates of eating disorders are those with weight-making or cutting practices such as combat sport, and aesthetic sports where nothing less than perfect appearances get the most points. Diving, running, gymnastics, and wrestling are just a few amongst the top sports at high risk.
The incidence of eating disorders is higher in women than men, but this doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels when it comes to male athletes. Everyone is at risk – all genders, ages and sports – and the lead-up to competitions can be an especially testing time.
So, what are the indicators of an athlete who might be at risk? Warning signs can come in the form of behavioural, physical and psychological factors. Tackling Eating Disorders in Sport covers this topic in great depth, allowing you to form an action plan for your setting. Essentially, you’re looking out for excessive training, compulsive eating or exercise, restrictive and ritualistic eating, skipping meals, purging, diet pills, obsessive talk about weight and appearance (beyond what’s required to make the grade), tooth decay, dizzy spells, and downy hair on the body, to mention but a few. And the risk is great. Illness, injury, mental health problems, poor performance (such as strength, coordination and endurance), and even death could be on the cards. Sadly eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates amongst mental health illnesses.
Young players in particular might struggle to understand where to stop with optimised nutrition and training, as they are already acutely aware of their changing teenage bodies, as well as the daily pressures of the media, social media, and peer-pressure at school.
Practical support is at hand
Whatever your sport, Tackling Eating Disorders in Sport is full of good practice tips. As well as gaining an understanding of the different types, contexts, and consequences of eating disorders including orthorexia, anorexia athletica, bulimia nervosa and more, the eLearning course will also show you what to do and the correct path to follow if you identify an athlete is struggling. It’s important to remember, however, that you are not a doctor – awareness-raising and signposting is the key to safeguarding success.
By the end of the online course, you’ll be able to:
- Understand what eating disorders are
- Recognise the spectrum of eating behavior in athletes
- Consider the prevalence in sport
- Understand the consequences on health and performance
- See how to identify and how disorders are treated
You can sign up for the Tackling Eating Disorders in Sport online course here and can complete it in your own time. It’s a short, but packed course suitable for a range of learning styles with an assessment at the end, after which you’ll receive CIMPSA CPD points, a digital certificate, and your own action plan to tackle eating disorders in your sport.
Written by Alice Gunn