Prevention is the best way to stop eating disorders and the first item on the agenda is education. Athletes, parents, coaches, sports administrators, training staff, and physicians need to be fully informed about the risks and warning signs of eating disorders. The warning signs of an eating disorder are:
1.) Obsession with food, calories and weight.
2.) Constant vocal concern that one is fat, despite being of average or below average body weight.
3.) Continual and increasing criticism of one’s own body.
4.) Obtaining and consuming food in secret.
5.) Indulge in large amounts of food and then leave to go to the bathroom.
6.) Eating large amounts of food that are inconsistent with one’s weight.
7.) Bloodshot eyes, particularly after leaving the bathroom.
8.) Enlarged parotid glands located at the angle of the jaw, giving the appearance of a chipmunk.
9.) Vomiting, or the smell of vomit in the bathroom.
10.) Weight goes up and down in a short period of time.
11.) Severely limit your calorie intake.
12.) Misuse of laxatives, even when not necessary.
13.) Excessive exercise even when not included in the athlete’s training.
14.) Refrain from eating in front of other people.
15.) Constantly making disappearing comments about yourself immediately after eating.
16.) Wearing loose, shapeless clothing.
18.) Extreme interest in other people’s eating habits.
19.) Excessive consumption of water or diet soda.
If you realize that your child or someone else may have an eating disorder, you should approach the situation very cautiously. People with anorexia or bulimia often vehemently deny that anything is wrong and that they have a problem. Let him know that you are concerned about his symptoms of dizziness, constant fatigue, and frequent distractions. Use these symptoms as a way for her to seek help. Don’t mention anything related to bingeing or purging, or even eating disorders. Instead, emphasize your concern for their physical and mental health. Provide him with sources where he can seek professional help. A gymnast may deny that she has a problem, but deep inside she may be begging for help.
Where and how to get help
Check with your doctor about clinics or hospitals in your area that specialize in treating eating disorders. You may need medical and psychological help and participate in therapy with the whole family. You can also check out these resources:
1.) The Eating Disorders Association, Sackville Place, 44 Magdalen Street, Norwich, Norfolk NR3lJE. Telephone (0603) 621414. This is an umbrella organization that coordinates with a network of local groups run by former anorexia and bulimia sufferers. Provides information, telephone help and a newsletter. Mail sae for details of local groups.
2.) Binge Eaters Anonymous, PO Box 19, Stratford, Manchester M32 9EB. A self-help organization for men and women with eating disorders that uses a “12-step” recovery program inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous. They can put you in touch with the nearest one of more than 100 groups across the country.
There continues to be an increase in eating disorders among athletes, particularly those who participate in sports that require a slim physique. Sports with a higher incidence of eating disorders include figure skating, gymnastics, dance, and synchronized swimming, compared to basketball, volleyball, and skiing. In a study conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine in 1992, 62% of women in sports such as gymnastics and figure skating had eating disorders.
Due to the desire to be thin or to gain the approval of the judges or their coach, many athletes succumb to eating disorders. Most coaches can trigger the onset of eating disorders by criticizing the athlete’s weight or pressuring them to lose a few pounds. This type of treatment causes the athlete to resort to unhealthy eating habits and strict diets that can have both physical and emotional adverse effects.
Athletes are under constant pressure to stay slim, especially in sports that specialize in aesthetic and technical skills. This is because most judges consider body weight as one of the factors in deciding aesthetic score. Christy Henrich, a world-class gymnast, was once criticized by a judge at a Budapest competition in 1998 for being too fat and needing to lose weight to make the Olympic team. Henrich turned to anorexia and bulimia as a way to lose weight. At one point, she actually weighed only 47 pounds. Eventually, her eating disorders caused her death. Christy Henrich succumbed to multiple organ failure on July 26, 1994 at the age of 22.
Having an eating disorder poses a danger to athletes as they are more prone to medical complications such as electrolyte imbalances and cardiac arrhythmias. A minimal calorie intake coupled with strenuous physical activities puts their bodies under considerable stress. Like Christy Henrich, they are at increased risk of cardiac arrest. It is difficult to try to convince gymnasts to acknowledge that they have eating disorders because they believe that extreme weight loss is beneficial to their athletic performance.
Looking at the body sizes of gymnasts over the years, the dramatic drop in weight and body mass went from a standard height of 5’3″ and weighing 105 pounds in 1976, to an astonishingly stunted 4’8″. ” and 88 lbs. in 1992. It is fortunate that the leading organizations of international gymnastics have set out to contain this alarming trend. They have decreed that 16 years is the minimum age for girls to participate in International Gymnastics. Today, the girls who compete have healthier weights and masses.
The need to educate parents, coaches and trainers becomes even more apparent as they need to know if the child has developed an unhealthy obsession with food, dieting and excessive exercise that goes beyond their sport.
Part of the gym training program should include lecture sessions given by nutritionists to educate young athletes on proper nutrition and why healthy eating is necessary to fuel a body that is put through such strenuous activity. It is also crucial that gymnasts who already have eating disorders are encouraged and supported to seek help, and that counseling is available to them when they do. Gymnasts with eating disorders need reassurance that they will not be criticized or derogatory if they come forward and acknowledge their need for help.