Eating Disorders and Young Athletes

As many parents know, playing organized sports has many benefits for kids. Children who play sports get regular exercise. They also develop new friendships with team members. Playing sports can boost self-esteem. It also teaches teamwork and leadership lessons.

But sometimes kids can be on a team that focuses too heavily on performance, or on how kids look. This can have a negative effect. In some cases, it may trigger an eating disorder.

About eating disorders

An eating disorder is a health condition. It’s when someone has an unhealthy obsession with food, weight, and their appearance. These are common types of eating disorders:

  • Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is marked by repeated episodes of eating a large amount of food at one time (binge eating). This is followed by feeling extreme guilt and getting the food out of the body (purging). The purging may include self-induced vomiting, extreme exercise, fasting, or diuretic or laxative use.

  • Anorexia nervosa. With this eating disorder, a person has extreme thinness, severe calorie restriction, a severely distorted body image, an extreme fear of weight gain, and denial.

  • Binge-eating disorder. This is linked to a loss of control about eating. People with this disorder eat a large amount of food at a time without purging. They feel extreme shame and guilt afterward.

Sports and eating disorders

Eating disorders tend to affect those assigned female at birth more often, but anyone can have eating disorders.

Young athletes tend to be at a greater risk of having an eating disorder if they play sports that focus on personal performance, appearance, diet, and weight requirements. Such competitive sports include:

  • Swimming and diving

  • Bodybuilding

  • Wrestling

  • Gymnastics

  • Running

  • Dancing

  • Figure skating

  • Rowing (crew)

  • Beach volleyball

These factors can increase the risk that a young athlete will develop an eating disorder:

  • Participating in an individual, rather than a team sport, such as gymnastics or swimming

  • Basing personal identity and self-worth solely on athletic performance

  • Having performance anxiety

  • Having a negative view of personal athletic achievement

  • Having the mistaken idea that being thinner makes you a better athlete

  • Having a coach who focuses on appearance, competition, and success rather than sportsmanship and the whole person

  • Having suffered physical or sexual abuse or another trauma

  • Having low self-esteem

  • Feeling family or peer pressure to be thin

  • Having family members with eating disorders

  • Dieting constantly

What parents can do

Father hugging son.

As a parent, you can give unconditional love and support. This lets your children know that you value them for who they are, not how they look. Promote a positive body image by setting a good example. Don't talk about dieting. And don't make critical remarks about your own body, such as "I look so fat in these jeans." That kind of attitude can affect your children.

To protect young athletes against eating disorders, you can also:

  • Encourage young athletes to focus on healthy ways to improve their performance. This includes working on their physical strength and mental attitude. It also includes eating nutritious and well-balanced meals to maximize performance.

  • Check that their coaches are a positive influence. They shouldn't make negative comments about weight. Talk with the coaches if you see this behavior occur.

  • Work with coaches who stress motivation and enthusiasm, not body size and shape. Check that coaches can spot the warning signs of eating disorders.

  • Keep a watch on social influences, social media, and teammates. They should promote healthy beliefs about weight, diet, and self-image. Also check for improper social pressures linked to these same areas. 

  • Advise against frequent weigh-ins, and stress health and fitness over a certain number on the scale.

  • Watch out for symptoms of eating disorders. These include abnormal or obsessive behaviors about food or exercise. It also includes changes in weight, and changes in skin, hair, and nails caused by malnutrition. Disordered eating can also lead to abnormal or missed periods, and calcium and bone loss. That can lead to a higher risk for broken bones (fractures) and other bone problems. If you have any concerns, take your child to see their healthcare provider. 

  • Get help from a mental health provider right away if your child shows warning signs of an eating disorder or an obsession with being thin. 

  • Be willing to go to family counseling if advised by your child's therapist.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.