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Eating Disorders: College Athletes At Increased Risk

Winter break warning signs


By Enola Gorham, LCSW, CEDS 

As college freshmen across the U.S. return home for the holidays, thousands of parents will - for the first time - discover eating disorders that developed during their child's first semester. Because the transition to college is one of the two most common life stages in which eating disorders develop, parents should be vigilant for symptoms of eating disorders as their teens return home for the mid-year break.

For parents of college athletes, this phenomenon should be of particular concern. At least one-third of female college athletes exhibit some form of disordered eating behaviors, according to a 1999 study published by Craig Johnson, PhD, FAED, CEDS, chief clinical officer of the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado.

College Pressures

For many young adults, the pressures of the first semester of college can create the perfect storm for eating disorders development, and it's easy for teens to hide behaviors from their families, particularly if they go to school far away from home. Many parents won't see the outcome of this devastating development until their children return home for winter break.

Dieting to avoid the "freshman 15," stress from academic and social pressures and anxiety tied to being away from home for the first time are common triggers of first semester eating disorders development. For college athletes, athletic performance pressures and the stress of juggling a full academic load while playing a sport at the collegiate level can exacerbate an already anxiety-ridden situation.

Warning Signs

To help parents recognize eating disorders in their home-bound college athletes, and appropriately intervene, here are eight winter break warning signs that may indicate a teen has an eating disorder or could be at risk for developing one:

  1. Noticeable weight loss or weight gain since he or she entered college.Women with hands tied by tape measure
  2. Helping with the preparation of holiday meals, but not eating them.
  3. Excessive exercise, even outdoors in poor winter weather conditions.
  4. Withdrawal from family and friends and avoidance of gatherings, even if he or she has not seen loved ones for months.
  5. Discussing college or their sport in a "stressed out" or obviously anxious manner or altogether avoiding conversations about school.
  6. A belief that achieving a lower weight and lower percentage body fat will enhance his or her athletic performance.
  7. A conviction that a "thinner" appearance will lead to higher scores in participants of "judged" sports such as gymnastics or figure skating.
  8. A marked decrease in self-esteem, particularly related to body image.

The Deadliest Mental Illness

While many parents of college athletes may be tempted to send their young adult back to school so as not to inhibit athletic or academic success, turning a blind eye to these behaviors can cause irreparable harm. In college athletes, disordered eating may not only lead to osteoporosis, organ malfunction and digestive distress; these athletes' extremely high activity levels can also make them more susceptible to serious injury. Because eating disorders are also the deadliest mental illness, early intervention saves lives.

Intervening and Seeking Help

  • Just talk: If you believe your college athlete is displaying signs of an eating disorder, don't be afraid to discuss it.  Set aside a quiet time away from distractions to talk.
  • Be respectful: Express your concerns in a respectful, caring and supportive manner, while citing specific examples of times when you felt concerned about your child's behaviors.
  • It's complicated: Remember that recovery from an eating disorder is not as simple as "you just need to eat."
  • No shaming: Above all, try not to argue, don't judge and avoid placing blame, shame or guilt. Eating disorders are a serious illness, and not a choice.

When it comes time to seek help, contact an eating disorders treatment center, and ask for a free assessment. Most treatment centers will let you know if your child meets the criteria for a higher level of care and will offer referrals to resources in your area if your child is best suited to an outpatient environment. Recovery is entirely possible with early intervention and proper treatment from qualified professionals.

Enola Gorham is Clinical Director of Adult Services at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado, an international center for eating disorders recovery providing comprehensive treatment for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).  To learn more about the Eating Recovery Center, visit its website at http://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com/.



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