The Renfrew Center, the nation’s first residential eating disorder facility and largest treatment network, continues to see a disturbing and growing trend among eating disorder patients—obsession with dietary restraint and increased exercise stemming from athletic ambitions. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorders and other related behavioral health issues continue to be on the rise, especially among young women and men involved in sports that emphasize the need to be thin and agile, extremely fit, or excessively muscular and strong to excel.
“Identifying athletes with eating disorders is not easy because they are often secretive or blame their eating habits and exercise regimen on their training goals,” said Kathleen Fetter, MS, LPC, primary therapist at The Renfrew Center of North Carolina. “The line between ‘fit’ and ‘thin’ slowly begins to blur until they truly believe that the thinner they are, the stronger, faster, better and more celebrated they will be in their respective sports. They cannot see that the obsession to be thin is actually destroying their future in athletics and life. ”
Experts at The Renfrew Center stress the need for parents to educate themselves on the dangers of exercise abuse and unhealthy athletic pursuits. They offer the following tips to help parents recognize when healthy training routines turn into an obsession leading the athlete to turn to drastic measures to become thin and succeed in their sport:
- Accompany your child to some training sessions, especially in the beginning, to observe the coach/trainer and their method of training.
- Discuss the dangers of dieting and the importance of eating properly; stress that strength, agility and endurance are fostered by good nutrition and a healthy diet and not by a weight loss approach.
- Remind your children that their responsibility towards their bodies is to take care of it nutritionally by eating a well-balanced energy packed diet.
- Talk about different body types and how they can all be accepted and appreciated.
- Show your children you love them for who they are inside, not for how they look and perform in sports.
- Examine your own beliefs and feelings about body image and weight, and consider how these might be communicated to your children in your attitudes, comments or nonverbal responses.
In addition, The Renfrew Center understands the critical role coaches and trainers play in an athlete’s life. They offer the following tips to help coaches and trainers prevent eating disorders in their athletes:
- Provide athletes with accurate information regarding body composition, nutrition and sports performance in order to reduce misinformation.
- De-emphasize weight by not weighing athletes and not focusing on weight. Instead, focus on other areas in which athletes have more control in order to improve performance. There is no risk in improving mental and emotional capacities.
- Do not assume that reducing body fat or weight will enhance performance, as studies show this does not necessarily apply to all athletes. Some individuals may respond to weight loss attempts with eating disorder symptoms.
- Explore your own personal values and attitudes regarding weight, dieting and body image, and how these values and attitudes may inadvertently affect your athletes.
- Refer to a sports psychologist or therapist skilled at treating eating disorders if an athlete is chronically dieting and/or exhibits abnormal eating. Early detection increases the likelihood of successful treatment.
The Renfrew Center also urges parents and coaches to be aware of and look for these common WARNING SIGNS that indicate that a child may be suffering from an eating disorder:
- Exercising alone and avoiding interaction with others, especially coaches/trainers
- Exercising even though they are sick or injured
- Skipping class, work or other important duties to exercise
- Exercising beyond their normal training regimen
- Preoccupation with food and weight
- Repeatedly expressing concerns about being fat
- Increasing criticism of one’s body
- Frequently eating alone
- Use of laxatives
- Making trips to the bathroom during or following meals
With athletes, often exercise abuse is the precursor to an eating disorder, as opposed to restricting calories or binge-purge behaviors. Excessive exercise is also often the last behavior to be brought under control when a course of treatment is followed. It begins with a desperate attempt to please the coach, parents and even judges. While no one person can be blamed for an eating disorder, many coaches and parents apply the pressure that leads an athlete to dangerous methods of weight control/weight loss that can do serious physical and emotional damage.
About The Renfrew Center
The Renfrew Center has treated more than 60,000 women with eating disorders and other behavioral health issues since its establishment in 1985. The treatment philosophy emphasizes a respect for the unique psychology of women, the importance of a collaborative therapeutic relationship, and the belief that every woman needs to actively participate in her own recovery. The Renfrew Center has facilities in Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. For more information, please visit www.renfrewcenter.com or call 1-800-RENFREW.