Prevention is the best way to halt disordered eating in its tracks, and the first item on the agenda is education. Athletes, parents, coaches, sports administrators, training staff and doctors need to be extensively informed about the risks and warning signs of disordered eating. The warning signs of an eating disorder are:

1.) An obsession with food, calories and weight.

2.) Constant vocal concern that one is fat, despite an average or below average body weight.

3.) Continuous and increased criticism of one’s body.

4.) Secretly obtaining and consuming food.

5.) Feasting on huge amounts of food and then leaving to go to the bathroom.

6.) Eating large quantities of food contradictory with one’s weight.

7.) Bloodshot eyes, particularly after exiting the bathroom.

8.) Enlarged parotid glands located at the angle of the jaw, giving the appearance of a chipmunk.

9.) Throwing up, or the smell of vomit in the bathroom.

10.) Weight going up and down over a short period of time.

11.) Severely limiting calorie intake.

12.) Undue use of laxatives, even when unnecessary.

13.) Excessive exercise even when not included in the athlete’s training.

14.) Refraining from eating in front of other people.

15.) Constantly making disparaging comments about oneself immediately after eating.

16.) Wearing loose and shapeless garments.

17.) Moodiness

18.) Extreme interest in other people’s eating habits.

19.) Too much consumption of water or diet soda.

If you become aware that your child or someone else may have an eating disorder, you have to approach the situation with a lot of tack. Anorexia or bulimia sufferers will most often than not, vehemently deny that there is something wrong, and that they have a problem. Let her know that you are worried about her symptoms of dizziness, constant fatigue and frequent distractedness. Use these symptoms as a way for her to seek help. Don’t mention anything relating to bingeing or purging, or even eating disorders. Stress instead on your concern about their physical and mental health. Provide her with sources where she could seek professional assistance. A gymnast may deny that she has a problem, but inside she may be pleading for help.

Where and How to Get Help

Consult with your doctor about clinics or hospitals in your area which specialize in the treatment of eating disorders. You may require both medical and psychological help, and engage in therapy with the whole family. You may also look at these resources:

1.) The Eating Disorders Association, Sackville Place, 44 Magdalen Street, Norwich, Norfolk NR3lJE. Telephone (0603) 621414. This is an umbrella organization which coordinates with a network of local groups run by former sufferers of anorexia and bulimia. It provides information, telephone help, and a newsletter. Send a sae for details of local groups.

2.) Overeaters Anonymous, PO Box 19, Stratford, Manchester M32 9EB. A self-help organization for men and women with eating disorders that makes use of a “12-step” recovery program patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous. They can put you in touch with the nearest of more than 100 groups nationwide.

There continues to be an increase in eating disorders among athletes, particularly among those who participate in sports that require a slight physique. Sports with a higher incidence of eating disorders include figure skating, gymnastics, dancing and synchronized swimming, as compared to that of basketball, volleyball and skiing. In a study undertaken by the American College of Sports Medicine in 1992, 62% of females in sports like gymnastics and figure skating had eating disorders.

Due to a desire to be thin, or to gain the approval of judges or their coach, many female athletes succumb to eating disorders. A majority of coaches can trigger the advent eating disorders by criticizing the athlete’s weight, or pressuring them to take off some pounds. This type of treatment results in the athlete resorting to unhealthy eating habits and crash diets which may have adverse effects both physically and emotionally.

Athletes are under constant pressure to remain thin, especially in sports which specialized in aesthetic and technical skills. This is because most judges consider body weight as one of the factors in deciding aesthetic score. Christy Henrich, a world class gymnast, was once criticized by a judged in a 1998 Budapest competition, as being too fat and needed to lose weight in order to make the Olympic team. Henrich turned to anorexia and bulimia as a way to lose weight. At one point, she actually weighed a mere 47 lbs. Eventually, her eating disorders caused her death. Christy Henrich succumbed to multiple organ failure on July 26, 1994 at the age of 22.

Having an eating disorder poses a danger to athletes as they are more prone to acquire medical complications like electrolyte imbalances and cardiac arrhythmias. A very minimal calorie intake coupled with strenuous physical activities puts their bodies through considerable stress. Like Christy Henrich, they are at higher risk for cardiac arrest. It is difficult trying to convince gymnasts to acknowledge that they have eating disorders because they view extreme loss of weight as beneficial to their athletic performance.

Looking at gymnasts body sizes through the years, the dramatic plunge in weight and body mass went from a standard height of 5’3″ and a weight of 105 lbs. in 1976, to a staggeringly stunted 4’8″ and 88 lbs. in 1992. It is fortunate that the organizations heading international gymnastics have set out to contain this alarming trend. They have decreed that 16 is the minimum age for girls to participate in International Gymnastics. At present, girls in competition have healthier weights and mass.

The need to educate parents, coaches and trainers becomes even more apparent, as they need to be aware whether the child has developed an unhealthy obsession towards food, dieting and excessive exercising going beyond the call of her sport.

Part of the gymnastics training program should involve lecture sessions given by nutritionists to educate the young athletes on proper nutrition and why eating healthy is necessary to fuel a body undergoing such strenuous activities. It is also crucial that gymnasts who already have eating disorders are encouraged and supported to seek help, and that counseling be available to them when they do. Gymnasts who suffer from eating disorders need the assurance that they will not be subject to criticism or disparaging treatment if they come forward and acknowledge their need for help.

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