Athletes & Eating Disorders: What Coaches Can Do Better

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This past weekend I had the privilege of attending the New Hampshire Eating Disorder conference where I heard a few presentations on the topic of athletes, health at every size, and of course eating disorders. Disordered eating and eating disorders are very prevalent among athletes and it’s important that we as coaches stay informed.

We all come to the table with our own stories. We have our own biases and beliefs about health and fitness and what that all looks like, and unfortunately, without meaning to, we push our values onto others and often do more harm than good. Just today I shared a post on Instagram and a girl direct messaged me saying that she was recently told she should get her body fat under 16% to be competitive in Crossfit (she’s currently at 17%). She was also compared to another athlete who’s been doing the sport much longer and who, by the way, is a completely different person. This girl told her coach that she has a history of disordered eating and has been at 11% body fat and amenorrheic in the past. Her coach responded “wow a lot of women can get to single digit body fat and be fine”. This coach was obviously extremely rude and harmful, and frankly should not be a coach. Unfortunately these are the types of conversations that are happening between athletes and coaches every day.

I want to share a few things that I believe we coaches need to be aware of and how we can do better.

Health is not an obligation

This statement was given by health coach Ragen Chastain and really hit home for me. We as coaches get trapped in this idea that health should be the number one priority for everyone. We want our clients to be healthy and thrive and feel their best, but how is this message coming across? That if you’re not healthy then you’re less than? That your self worth is determined by your health? We aren’t blatantly saying these things, but that’s how our messages can come across. We push our values and beliefs onto others. Our ideas and biases about what health means and what health looks like closes us off to helping more people. It’s creating a barrier for people to come and talk to us. We need to be careful about what we’re saying and how its coming across.

Solution? Ask yourself if your message is in the best interest of your client. Ask if you’re promoting health at every size. Is your message inclusive to all people of different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, social classes, etc. Obviously someone's going to be left out, and we’re not perfect but we can be conscious of who we’re speaking to, and what we’re saying.

Healthy behaviors and habits are more determinants of health than weight

9 times out of 10 a client comes to us wanting weight loss. For aesthetic purposes, for a weight class sport, to “be healthier”, whatever. It’s important for us as coaches to recognize that weight isn’t a determinant of health, but rather behaviors are. It’s also important for us to convey this to our clients. A study at George Washington University states “there isn’t even one peer reviewed controlled clinical study of any intentional weight loss diet that proves that people can be successful at one term significant weight loss...it is unscientific and unethical to support the continued use of dieting as an intervention for obesity”. Basically-diet’s don’t work and promoting weight loss to be healthier can be harmful.

Solution? If you’re thinking about offering a weight loss service, ask your client WHY and really listen. Give them resources for health at every size and size acceptance. Promote gratitude for where their body is at at any stage. Be honest and don’t make guarantees (especially for weight loss). Let healthy behaviors be the focus of your programs, rather than weight loss.

Look out for warning signs

Sometimes warning signs are obvious but more often not. There are physical signs we may or may not see such as: amenorrhea, dehydration, weight changes, stress fractures, dental issues, GI problems, muscle weakness, etc. Then there are psychological/behavioral signs: dissatisfaction with shape/weight, excessive exercising, depression and isolation, avoidance of eating and eating situations, anxiety and obsessive thoughts, use of laxative and diet pills, etc. Working with athletes and being mindful of disordered eating gets tricky, because many of the traits of one spill into the other. For example: a desirable trait of an athlete could be commitment to training, pursuit of excellence, fighting through pain, selflessness, mental toughness, etc. These traits we praise in athletes are huge red flags for someone with an eating disorder.

Solution? It’s important that we as coaches aren’t feeding into the disorder. Don’t put a person’s self worth into their performance. Make sure you’re not “accidentally” emotionally and physically abusing your clients. Us coaches may be the first line of defense in helping someone who has an eating disorder, or who may be on the path to having one. We must stay educated and informed around this issue.

Don’t be a part of the diet culture problem

Even the eating disorder and body positivity community have a diet culture and a fatphobia problem. Ragen Chastain brought to my attention the “good fatty/bad fatty” mentality. That we support fat people as long as they’re “healthy”. For example, a fat powerlifter is more accepted than a fat person who doesn’t exercise. We say it’s OK to be fat, as long as you care about health/fitness/etc.  

Solution? We need to recognize that health, fit, athlete is not a size. We as coaches need to work on celebrating and affirming diversity in body sizes. This includes intersectionality as well. Remember that we’re not just talking to white females. We’re talking to a complex variety of people that all deserve a place at the table. We may have done a good job at “no negative body talk”, but what have we done to actually celebrate diverse bodies?

Let me just say that no body is perfect. We all mess up and make mistakes, but what can set us apart from other coaches is checking in with ourselves and doing our own work. Asking ourselves how we’re engaging in diet culture. Being real with ourselves about our biases and stigmas. Identifying where there are gaps our inclusivity. I know I can do better, we all can.

Resources

AED  Academy for Eating Disorders:  is an international transdisciplinary professional organization that promotes excellence in research, treatment and prevention of eating disorders. The AED provides education, training and a forum for collaboration and professional dialogue.

ANAD – National Assoc of Anorexia Nervosa & Related Disorders:  The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc. is a non-profit corporation which seeks to alleviate the problems of eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

BEDA – Binge Eating Disorder Association:  is committed to helping those who suffer from binge eating disorder conquer their disorder. So if you or someone you care about lives with binge eating disorder, BEDA can help. If you treat the disorder, BEDA can help.

EDC – Eating Disorders Coalition:  Their mission is to advance the federal recognition of eating disorders as a public health priority.

FOR-U  –Focus On Recovery-United, Inc.:  is a peer support program dedicated to promoting a culture of wellness by encouraging positive change in the lives of adults, their family members, providers, and the community.

IAEDP – International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals:  is well recognized for its excellence in providing first-quality education and high-level training standards to an international multidisciplinary group of various healthcare treatment providers and helping professions, who treat the full spectrum of eating disorder problems.

MEDA – Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association:  is dedicated to the prevention and treatment of eating disorders and disordered eating. MEDA serves as a support network and resource for clients, loved ones, clinicians, educators and the general public.

MGEDT – Men Get Eating Disorders Too:  is specific to the needs of men including definitions and symptoms, treatments, links, support, etc. MGEDT seeks to raise awareness of eating disorders in men so men are able to recognize their symptoms and access support when they need it.

 N.A.M.E.D. – The National Association for Males with Eating Disorders:  is to provide support to males with eating disorders, to educate the public on the issue, and to be a resource of information on the subject.

 NEDA – National Eating Disorder Association:  is the largest not-for-profit organization in the United States working to prevent eating disorders and provide treatment referrals to those suffering from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder and those concerned with body image and weight issues.

NIS – NORMAL In Schools:  is a national nonprofit arts-and-education organization that educates about the devastating impact of eating disorders, the therapeutic impact of the arts, and related issues such as body image, self esteem and family communication.

Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness:  is a source of community outreach, education, awareness, and prevention of the various eating disorders to reduce the rate and severity of eating disorders among people of all ages.

BeyondHunger is dedicated to helping individuals overcome the obsession with food and weight and find a natural, loving and peaceful relationship with their food, weight, and selves.

If you’d like additional resources please email me at info@christinaennabe.com.