Eating Disorders

Watch out for the warning signs

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can have devastating impacts on the person experiencing the disorder and their family or friends. Anyone can develop an eating disorder – including sportspeople. Wallabies star David Pocock revealed he suffered from a stress-related eating disorder he developed as a teenager in his early determination to become a world-class rugby player.

An article in The Conversation on ‘anorexia and bulimia’ highlighted that eating disorders are an increasing problem in children and adolescents [1], and are not just a concern for girls but for boys as well, with one in four sufferers of eating disorders being male [2].

According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC), research shows eating disorders are estimated to affect approximately 9% of the population and that up to 20% of females may have undiagnosed eating disorders.[3]

The causes of eating disorders in sportspeople and athletes can differ according to the individual and the sport they participate in. However, some of the reasons why someone may over-exercise and develop an eating disorder include: the competitive nature of sport and the ‘win at all costs’ attitude of doing anything to perform better (including sacrificing their physical health); and pressure from coaches on athletes to lose weight and perform arduous training to maintain a certain size or stature.[4]

It is not always easy to detect someone who has an eating disorder as people with disorders may go to great lengths to disguise their behaviour. Some athletes may ignore health complications and injuries associated with bulimia or anorexia all for the sake of success in their chosen sport, when in fact they are risking their long-term sporting career and overall health.

The NEDC say there are warning signs that can signal the onset or the presence of an eating disorder (and sometimes a person may display a combination of these symptoms). These include:

Physical warning signs 

  • Rapid weight loss or frequent changes in weight
  • Loss of or disturbance of menstrual periods in girls and women
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Always feeling tired and not sleeping well
  • Swelling around the cheeks or jaw, calluses on knuckles, damage to teeth and bad breath which can be signs of vomiting
    Feeling cold most of the time, even in warm weather

Psychological warning signs

  • Preoccupation with eating, food, body shape and weight
  • Feeling anxious around meal times
  • Feeling ‘out of control’ around food
  • Having a distorted body image
  • Feeling obsessed with body shape, weight and appearance
  • ‘Black and white’ thinking - rigid thoughts about food being ‘good’ or ‘bad’
  • Changes in emotional and psychological state - depression, stress, anxiety, irritability, low self esteem
  • Using food as a source of comfort (e.g. eating as a way to deal with boredom, stress or depression)
  • Using food as self punishment (e.g. refusing to eat due to depression, stress or other emotional reasons)

Behavioural warning signs

  • Dieting behaviour (e.g. fasting, counting calories/kilojoules, avoiding food groups such as fats and carbohydrates)
  • Eating in private and avoiding meals with other people
  • Evidence of binge eating (e.g. disappearance of large amounts of food)
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom during or shortly after meals
  • Vomiting or using laxatives, enemas or diuretics
  • Changes in clothing style (e.g. wearing baggy clothes)
  • Compulsive or excessive exercising (e.g. exercising in bad weather, in spite of sickness, injury or social events; and experiencing distress if exercise is not possible)
  • Making lists of good or bad foods
  • Suddenly disliking food they have always enjoyed in the past
  • Obsessive rituals around food preparation and eating (e.g. eating very slowly, cutting food into very small pieces, insisting that meals are served at exactly the same time everyday)
  • Extreme sensitivity to comments about body shape, weight, eating and exercise habits
  • Secretive behaviour around food (e.g. saying they have eaten when they haven’t, hiding uneaten food in their rooms).

(These warning symptoms are from the NEDC website at: www.nedc.com.au/recognise-the-warning-signs).

As parents and coaches it is important to be educated on how to recognise eating disorders and their warning signs. It’s also very important to get advice, information and support from professionals with specialised knowledge about eating disorders.

The NEDC has a range of guidelines and information on the identification, treatment and management of anorexia nervosa, bulimia and eating disorders at: www.nedc.com.au/fact-sheets

If you require immediate help go to: http://www.nedc.com.au/helplines

[1] http://theconversation.edu.au/explainer-anorexia-and-bulimia-7776

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16815322

[3] http://www.nedc.com.au/eating-disorders-in-australia

[4] www.casapalmera.com/articles/signs-and-causes-of-eating-disorders-among-athletes/