Eating disorders and disordered eating affects 50-65% of gymnasts, yet this is often overlooked and underplayed. Being involved in a sport that praises a prepubescent body as well as being highly attuned with their own bodies, puts gymnasts at high risk of developing disordered beliefs and behaviors related to food and their body. Gymnasts are often taught when their bodies change it is a failure, when in reality it’s part of becoming a women who has the strength and power to take on this new chapter of her life.
Unfortunately, many coaches are not aware of the power that their comments have on their athletes. Even if it is a sheer comment of concern, like “have you lost weight”, they have no capability to control how their gymnast perceives those words. Although it could just be the coach’s way of making sure they were ok, many athletes take it as a compliment and use it to fuel the start of a raging eating disorder.
The same can be said for comments like “you’d tumble higher if you lost a few pounds”. Many athlete’s eating disorders started due to a comment of this nature.
This is why it is so important to REFRAIN FROM BODY TALK.
Even the most well-meant comment can easily be twisted and used to fuel disordered food and body image behaviors. For the coaches who may be concerned about their athlete’s body, it is a much better idea to take these concerns to the parent rather than saying them directly to the athlete. This allows the parents to either share or not share the information with their gymnast. Overall, this method really allows for the decrease in reinforcement that there is something wrong with your gymnast’s body, which lessens the chance for them to develop and eating disorder.
Reading the signs of a developing eating disorder is SO IMPORTANT. However, one of the big misconceptions in society is that people associate eating disorders with an emaciated body. This concept that you must be severely underweight to have an eating disorder is completely inaccurate. Two of the most common eating disorders are atypical anorexia and binge eating disorder, none of which have anything to do with loosing weight. Due to this stereotype, many parents and athletes do not recognize signs like being cold all the time, having an increase in injuries, and having a decrease in performance as being attributed to disordered eating.
More importantly, there is NO ONE LOOK for an eating disorder.
The inability to determine if someone has an eating disorder based on their appearance is one of the main reasons so many people are not recognized as “sick enough”. These are not disorders to take lightly. Having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, eating disorders are very serious illnesses. Although full recovery is possible, it is a hard fight that your athlete will need lots of support around to overcome. This being said, the earlier you identify the signs and symptoms, and intervene, the more likely your gymnast will recover and the stress of finances and emotions will be lessened.
If you have any suspicion that your athlete may be struggling with disordered eating, you should take them to a dietitian or a pediatrician. It’s important to note that not all pediatricians are aware of the subtle signs of disordered eating. If your parent intuition senses something is amiss with your gymnast, you’ll likely correct. It is not normal for a teen gymnast to lose weight, fall off her growth curve, not get her period by 15 years old, etc. Many pediatricians excuse concerns about food/body or make inappropriate comments about weight/BMI because they are not trained in recognizing eating disorders. If this is the case your athlete, it is very important that you find someone else who is trained to see the warning signs of an eating disorder.
That being said, here are 8 signs that your athlete may be struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder.
1. Being Chained to the Scale
When your athlete becomes obsessed with the number she sees on the scale, this is a huge red flag that they are struggling. If you notice that they are weighing themselves every day or sneaking into your bathroom, it is a pretty tell-tale sign that their self-worth is tied to the number on the scale. You may also notice that sometimes they are in a great mood, some days they are in an awful mood, sometimes they eat and sometimes they don’t.
This black and white pattern often means that your gymnast is weighing herself every day, if not multiple times a day, and you may have no idea. It takes 2 minutes to strip down, weigh yourself, and run out of the room. This sneakiness of hiding their actions is a huge red flag that that something deeper may be going on. It is definitely a topic to tread lightly upon and often is better to speak with a professional about; however, when addressed it’s important to back up your concerns with education. The scale is an insignificant way to measure health as weight fluctuates 2-5 lbs every day depending on hormones, sodium, water, muscle breakdown, sleep, etc. This fluctuation leads to gymnasts starving or feeding themselves depending on it the number is high or low, which is a recipe for a horrible cycle that only leads to poor training, performance, and recovery.
There is no performance or “heath” based reason for anyone to weigh themselves every day, much less a high level gymnast who is still growing and developing.
2. Not Eating Before Practice
It is common for athletes not to want to eat before practice because they are worried about having an unsettled stomach during practice. However, when your older athletes, who are fully conscious of their weight and shape, begin to restrict food before practice it is something to look into. Many times, they are not eating so they can have a perfect flat stomach in their leotard or weigh themselves when they get home from gym to hopefully see a lower number than earlier in the day. The body comparison to teammates and/or influencers on social media, is only one that adds to the eating disorder mindset. Therefore, it is something to keep on your radar if you athlete is refusing to fuel her workouts.
3. Tracking What You Eat
There is absolutely no reason for a gymnast to be on a cookie cutter meal plan by a fitness trainer or tracking their macros/calories. This obsession with calories and numbers only leads to extreme black and white thinking and most often under fueling. When a gymnast counts calories or follows a rigid meal plan, they start to associate being “good” with hitting their macros for the day or “bad” if they overate. If they did overeat for their meal plan, often times it leads to them having the mindset that they already messed up so they should eat all the food they want and start the diet over the next day. This yo-yo cycle is extremely dangerous and can lead right to the development of an eating disorder.
4. Constantly Talking About Food
When the brain is malnourished, it is extremely interested in food. It’s trying to protect you, so it does everything it can to seek out food and someone to eat. This often leads to what is termed as “food porn”. This term is used to describe an obsession/fixation with looking at food, finding new recipes/restaurants, and yet not eating any of these things. This often looks like teen gymnasts being obsessed with baking sweets yet refuse to eat anything they prepared. This is a big red flag for inadequate nutrition and rigid food rules/restrained eating.
5. Forbidden Foods
If there are specific foods that your athlete used to love as a kid and now has decided she can no longer eat them, this is a big sign that there is disordered eating going on. As your gymnast hits puberty her picky eating may begin to dissipate and she may eat more fruits and vegetables. This is often praised by parents as they think their athlete is just trying to eat healthier. However, there is a big difference between adding nutrition and still being able to eat the fun foods versus refusing all fun foods while saying that they “just don’t like them anymore”. This extreme rigidity is often a red flag that there is some major disordered eating present in your athlete and that she’s subscribing to a diet, set of food rules, or is trying to follow some influencer on social media.
6. Gastrointestinal Issues
If your gymnast has been complaining about having constipation, abdominal pain, bloating, etc., it is very important to investigate their eating patterns. Often if taken to a gastroenterologist, they will run tests and labs. If the results come back clean, they might recommend an elimination diet or tell them it’s “anxiety” related irritable bowel syndrome. This is the farthest thing from what your gymnast needs. Their GI issues are more than likely stemming from relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) and/or anxiety, which causes the muscles of the intestinal tract to atrophy and slow down the process of digestion. When gymnasts cut out specific foods and then replace them with lots of protein/vegetables, it may seem like they are eating enough, but they are not from a caloric perspective. It is only when nutrition is restored that the gut is able to heal itself and return to a normal state of digestion. These GI issues are fully reversible it just requires restoring nutrition in your athlete.
A dietitian specialized in sport and eating disorders will be able to evaluate your gymnast’s food intake and help work with the physicians in determining the cause of the GI distress.
7. Safe Foods
This category is similar to your gymnast having forbidden foods, however it is the more extreme version. If you notice your gymnast only eating a handful of safe foods such as rice cakes, chicken, vegetables, nuts, etc. and cutting out dairy, gluten, sugar, saturated fats, etc., this is a big red flag of not only anxiety around food but also of disordered restrictive eating. It is normal to eat a wide variety of foods from different setting (home, restaurant, prepared foods, etc) without guilt, shame, or anxiety. Often when gymnasts are struggling with food, they’ll refuse to eat out or eat anything they are unable to know exactly how it was prepared and what/how much is in it.
8. Physical Consequences of Inadequate Nutrition
A consequence of dieting and disordered eating is often RED-S. This energy deficiency (underfueling) is often consequence of your gymnast “cleaning up their diet” or following an influencers meal plan that leads to inadequate overall nutrition intake. Malnutrition can lead to emotional dysregulation, a loss of period (amenorrhea), exhaustion, poor performance/adaptation to training, and being constantly cold. If you begin to notice that your gymnast is crying one second and angry the next, it is very clear that their body is not getting enough adequate nutrition.
Eating disorders are a profoundly, serious condition that often have tell-tale signs that your gymnast’s relationship with her body and food are not good. There are 8 signs that highlight if disordered eating is occurring in your athlete.
Being chained to the scale
- Not eating before practice
- Tracking what they eat
- Constantly talking about food
- Forbidden foods
- GI issues
- Safe foods
- Physical Consequences of Inadequate Nutrition
These signs are especially important to recognize as they can be the key to helping your athlete recovery from her eating disorder. Often in gymnastics, these conditions develops due to the praise of a prepubescent body and constant body talk by coaches and/or parents. Comparison of bodies to teammates or influencers lead to your athletes finding the need to control their food intake. As an adolescent, food is one of the few things they actually have control over, which is why so many athletes develop eating disorders.
In order to decrease the likelihood of disordered eating turning into a full-blown eating disorder, it is important to bring your daughter to a pediatrician if she starts showing any of these signs. In addition, bringing on a dietitian and a therapist into her team is in her best interest. At the end of the day it is not about the food, so having a therapist can never hurt. The only way to recover is to do the work with a therapist about what is underneath the anxiety/fear around food/body image distortion.
Although it is a financial investment, it is well worth giving your daughter the best chance at living a fulfilling life free from the eating disorder. The reality is even if your daughter quits the sport, her eating disorder will not go away. This is why it is so important to address these signs and be proactive in helping your gymnast move through them, so she can be free from her eating disorder for good.
If you have any other questions or would like to schedule a discovery call with me, please feel free to contact me!