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Participating in competitive sports can be an excellent way for young people to learn about teamwork, sportsmanship, gain self-confidence and develop important motor skills. In fact, participating in athletics can even push adolescents to perform better in their studies and may help them improve their ability to communicate. However, when sports teams focus too heavily on performance or body appearance, they can be one of the reasons why young people develop eating disorders. Each year, anorexia treatment centers around the country welcome adolescent athletes who are finding it challenging to navigate the demands of their sport and positive eating habits.

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa are serious mental health disorders that are characterized by a dangerous obsession with food, body weight and shape, physical appearance, calories and fad dieting.

The most common types of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa

    Adolescents may experience dangerous levels of weight loss in relation to a medically-deemed appropriate body size for their age, height and stature. Teens may engage in severe calorie restriction and excessive exercise, have a fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image.

  • Bulimia Nervosa

    Characterized by recurring episodes of binge eating large in a short period of time. Binge episodes are followed by purging behaviors that may include self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, fasting, laxative or diuretic abuse and more.

  • Binge Eating Disorder

    Only recently recognized as a separate condition, binge eating disorder is actually the most common eating disorder in the United States. With this type of disorder, people binge eat large amounts of food over a short period of time, but don’t engage in any purging behaviors. These uncontrollable binges are typically accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt, disgust and depression.

Athletes and Eating Disorders

As parents learn more about anorexia nervosa treatment, it may become clear there are direct links between their child’s participation in sports and the development of their disordered eating behaviors. But for teens, realizing their favorite sport may be a factor of their eating disorder can be confusing and even frightening, especially if they consider themselves to be more than just a casual athlete.

Eating disorders tend to affect young girls and female athletes more often than their male peers, but boys can also develop common eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Research shows when young athletes participate in competitive sports that focus on individual performance, weight requirements, appearance and their diet,  they may have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.

Some examples of competitive and individual sports with potential links to eating disorder development include:

  • Wrestling
  • Gymnastics
  • Ballet and Dance
  • Running
  • Bodybuilding
  • Figure skating
  • Rowing
  • Swimming and Diving

Related factors that can increase a young athlete’s risk of developing an eating disorder include:

  • Feeling pressure to maintain a specific body shape
  • Yo-yo or fad dieting
  • Working with a coach or peers who focus on competition and success rather than team building and sportsmanship
  • Misconceptions surrounding body shape and better performance
  • A requirement to complete regular “weigh-ins” in order to compete

Early Eating Disorder Warning Signs That Parents and Coaches Should Know

One of the biggest reasons parents should pay close attention to their student-athletes is the fact that eating disorders can be more difficult to detect when children are active in sports. Paying attention to early warning signs is the best way to ensure adolescents receive anorexia nervosa treatment as soon as possible. Some common eating disorder warning signs that loved ones should be aware of include:

Skipping Meals and Excessive Training

Dedicated athletes understand that adequately fueling the body and training are the best ways to help improve performance, prevent injuries and boost overall wellness. However, sticking to a strict diet and exercise regimen can quickly become too much for adolescents and result in disordered eating behaviors. If loved ones notice teens are developing an obsession surrounding counting calories, the elimination of entire food groups or a commitment to exercise despite injury and inclement weather, it may be time to have a conversation with their child and a trusted medical professional.

Increased Focus on Body Shape, Physical Appearance and “Making Weight”

If teens display signs they are dissatisfied with their body, there could be cause for parents to worry. These behaviors can result in a negative body image and depression, both common factors in eating disorder development in adolescence. When coupled with other stressors such as anxiety disorder, perfectionism and feelings of inadequacy, it is essential parents keep an open line of communication with their teens to facilitate early intervention and long-term anorexia nervosa recovery.

Frequent Fluctuations in Body Weight

As teens grow and go through puberty, it is common for them to experience slight changes in their body shape and weight. However, rapid shifts in overall body weight or prolonged periods of remaining underweight for their general age, height and stature could indicate a problem. Additionally, athletes may receive praise when they have “made weight” for a particular sport and when coupled with perfectionism, this can cause an impulse to restrict caloric intake.

Irregular Menstrual Periods or Late Onset of Puberty

Anorexia nervosa and other common eating disorders can result in many long-term health complications including electrolyte imbalances, malnutrition and abnormal sex hormone cycles in young girls. Infrequent menstrual periods or the absence of menstruation altogether is typically a clear indication teen girls have developed an eating disorder.

Overuse Injuries and Stress Fractures

A history of stress fractures and overuse injuries may be a warning sign that something is physically wrong with a student-athlete. Many times, the combination of low food and nutrient intake, paired with a high level of training and reduced body weight can result in weakened bones and increase an athlete’s risk for injury.

So, What Can Parents Do to Help?

The most significant role a parent can play in the anorexia nervosa recovery process is to offer reliable support to their child. Opening lines of communication is essential to long-term eating disorder recovery. To better protect student-athletes, parents can also:

  • Encourage their children to focus on positive ways they can improve their performance, such as working on maintaining a positive mental attitude and setting achievable physical strength goals
  • Check in with coaches regarding their child’s attitude and performance. Try to work with coaches who are a positive influence and refrain from making derogatory comments about food, body weight and body shape
  • Keep a close eye on social media use and interaction with teammates to make sure negative attitudes toward self-image are not influencing teens
  • Discourage the practice of frequent “weigh-ins”
  • Be aware of the most common early warning signs of eating disorders in student-athletes. If parents notice something is wrong, they should speak to their child in an appropriate manner, avoiding accusatory language and asking questions in a thoughtful way. If there are still concerns after discussing these warning signs, parents should immediately seek professional medical advice

Anorexia Nervosa Treatment Options for Adolescents

It is common for teen athletes to feel reluctant about beginning the search for anorexia treatment centers, but early intervention is often essential for long-term recovery. Luckily for teens and their families, many modern anorexia treatment facilities have recovery programs designed specifically for adolescent clients. Because of the complexity associated with eating disorders and adolescent athletes, parents should seek out anorexia treatment facilities that take a collaborative approach to recovery. Teens can significantly benefit from access to an eating disorder support network made up of family, coaches, medical professionals, psychiatrists, nutritionists and eating disorder counselors.

Depending on the individual needs of each client, anorexia treatment centers may recommend one or more levels of care for athletes, including:

Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatment

With outpatient treatment, adolescents should be both medically and psychiatrically stable. They must have their eating disorder symptoms under control and maintain an ability to function in normal school, social and work situations. Sometimes referred to as day treatment, this level of care is often utilized by teens who have already completed residential eating disorder treatment or more intensive recovery programs such as inpatient treatment or partial hospitalization stays.

Partial Hospitalization Care

Adolescents may be recommended treatment in a partial hospitalization facility if they are medically stable, but their eating disorder symptoms are impairing regular functioning. Similarly, clients who are psychologically stable but experiencing issues that require close supervision by a psychiatric care team may be best served by a partial hospitalization recovery program.

Residential Eating Disorder Treatment

This level of care is generally recommended for adolescents who are deemed to be medically stable and do not require intensive medical intervention. However, clients may be experiencing a range of psychiatric issues and are often unable to thrive in an outpatient treatment program. Residential treatment provides a safe and relaxing space away from outside distractions where teens and family members can discover the tools they need to complete the recovery process.

Inpatient Eating Disorder Recovery Programs

If an adolescent client is found to be both medically and psychiatrically unstable, the best course of treatment is often inpatient care. For example, if teens have depressed vital signs, complications with coexisting medical issues such as diabetes or suicidal thoughts they may benefit from a more intensive treatment program to help stabilize their symptoms.

Navigating Life After Recovery

Transitioning back into a regular school and athletic routine post recovery can be a complicated process. With time and patience, student-athletes may be able to return to the sports they love. One key component to reentry into previous routines is to take things slowly. Teens may want to start by only attending classes for a half day and choose to eat meals at home. Additionally, they may benefit from ongoing work with a nutritionist and fitness specialist to help monitor their diet and avoid jumping into a rigid exercise routine. Continued work with an eating disorder counselor can also help the transition process.

Contact Clementine Today

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, early intervention is essential. With hard work, dedication and access to a reliable support system, student-athletes can enjoy long-term recovery. For more information on our comprehensive adolescent eating disorder treatment programs, call us today at 1.855.900.2221 and be sure to speak with one of our friendly admissions specialists.





Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.