Gymnastics mind-set coach Ariana LeBlanc on the warning signs of eating disorders in athletes.

Eating disorders are very serious mental illnesses that also cause many serious physical and medical complications. Eating disorders are actually the leading cause of death in mental illness behind opioid overdose. It is important to realize that even though eating disorders are defined by weight and food intake, they are not a weight disorder, but a psychological disorder and have several, serious medical and psychological consequences such as: low heart rate, low bone density, fatigue, GI issues, increased risk of injury, impaired concentration, irritability, depression, isolation, and low self-esteem (Fernandez, 2022).

According to the Victory Program at McCallum Place, up to 45% of athletes suffer from an eating disorder and the following are several risk factors that place an athlete at an even higher risk of developing an eating disorder: being in an aesthetic sport (such as gymnastics), early start in the sport, overtraining, injury, perfectionism, dieting, team dynamics with coach and teammates, and performance level (Fernandez, 2022).

What can parents and coaches keep an eye out for?

Changes in your athlete’s attitude regarding food, weight, and self-perception (Fernandez, 2022). Athletes who start eating less, start fad diets or clean eating, frequent body checking, or a youth or adolescent whose body is not changing (Fernandez, 2022). Dietary restriction can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder and youth athletes are expected to be growing in both height and weight up until late adolescence and into their 20s! Other warning signs to look out for are athletes who over-exercise, cannot tolerate a missed workout, exercise when sick or injured, and athletes with mood swings, increased anxiety or depression, or lack of emotion (Fernandez, 2022).

Warning signs of an eating disorder include athletes who over exercise or who cannot tolerate a missed work-out.

How to help prevent eating disorders.

As a coach and parent, be mindful of how you are communicating with your athlete – both verbally and nonverbally. Avoid talking about your own weight, diets, and trying to lose weight. Make sure to check in with your athlete about how they are doing both in and out of the gym. Be interested in learning about the whole athlete. Avoid saying that their lack of skills is due to their weight! According to the 40-factor model, weight is 1 out of 40 factors that contribute to performance, and putting too much emphasis on weight is very detrimental to the athlete (Fernandez, 2022).

As a coach and parent, make sure to check in with the whole athlete. For instance, ask them questions that take the whole person into account such as the following: “I have noticed some changes in your mood lately? Are you doing ok?” or “How are things going with gymnastics, do you still enjoy it?” “How are things at home and school?”

As a coach, we want to ensure a positive environment. We live in a world that is bombarded by diet culture and perfectionism. Try to instill these messages: Strive for excellence vs be the best at all costs. Make sure to have fun today and try hard vs your gymnastics would be so much better if you lost x pounds. Engage in a person-centered orientation coaching style instead of a negative performance-oriented style.

Check in with your gymnast regularly, asking questions that take the whole person into account. 

Last of all, if you know of an athlete who may be struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, please get them the help they need. Below are some great resources to help find professional help in your area.

Reference: Fernandez, S. P. (2022). Off The Starting Blocks: Eating Disorder Prevention in Youth Sports. The Victory Program at McCallum Place.

Ariana LeBlanc LMHC, MS, BS is a mind-set coach and former elite gymnast.