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Eating Disorders in Athletes: Practical Tips for Parents

Sports promote health, team work, and leadership. Sometimes, however, athletes develop eating disorders, and they are not always easy to spot it right away. At first, an athlete may simply want to eat healthier, or get in a few extra minutes of practice time on the field. If they take their healthy eating and extra exercise too far, however, an eating disorder can develop. Some kids are dealing with a lot at home;

Women measuring her waist

Parents divorcing, trying to get grades up to get in college, or a myriad of other things. An eating disorder can develop if they feel like their life is out of control, and the one thing they can control is their body and food. 

Here are some signs that your chiild has a possible eating disorder:

  • excluding themselves from family meal time/ saying they already ate
  • exercising in addition to their normal practice time
  • exercising when they are injured
  • excessively discussing food in terms of calories or fat grams
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • frequent injuries 

What parents can do 

  • Seek professional help right away: If you discover your child is struggling with an eating disorder, seek professional help right away. The more quickly you intervene, the more likely it is that your child will have a full recovery. 
  • Talk with your child and involve them in the treatment process. If they have a hand in selecting their treatment team, they will be more likely to follow their treatment team's guidance. 
  • Develop treament plan that addresses both your child's mental state and their physical health.  Usually, a primary care doctor will be involved, along with an individual therapist, a registered dietitian, and possibly a family therapist as well.
  • Normalize and validate. Often times, people with eating disorders will not want to talk about their eating disorder. They may feel embarrassed and ashamed. As a parent, try to normalize and validate your child's experience of developing an eating disorder. Recognize that their eating disorder is a way they are coping with the stressors in their life. Often times, children and teens do not have healthier skills to cope with the increased demands placed on them. Let your child know that life can be difficult and you are there to help them.
  • Don't use scare tactics.  Some teens may not realize the long-term effects of eating disorders on their physical and mental health. Eating disorders can be deadly and need to be taken seriously, but using scare tactics with your child isn't helpful, as they may cause them to feel more ashamed about their eating disorder. 
  • Let them know that you care about them, and you understand they are going through a rough time. Offer to look up treatment options together, and attend their first appointment with them if it makes them feel more comfortable.
  • Do not force your child to eat with the family.  If they refuse to eat with the family, trying to force them to do so will likely only make things worse. 
  • Don't automatically rule out sports.  Depending on how severe your child's eating disorder, they may need to stop playing sports for a period of time until they become physically healthy again. However, do not automatically curtail their athletic participation. Get them evaluated by a medical professional who can make this decision. Taking them out of their sports preemptively may cause more harm than good.
  • Know that there are treatment options and that recovery is possible.  Eating disorders are life-threatening and need to be addressed immediately, but, fortunately, there are numerous treatment options and recoveries happen every day.

For advice to coaches about how to deal with athletes with eating disorders, click here. 

Melissa Preston


Melissa Preston is a registered psychotherapist and nutritionist in Denver, Colorado providing counseling and nutrition services to adolescents and adults. She has extensive experience helping people with addiction, eating disorders, and body image issues, as well as common psychological concerns, such as family strife and relationship issues. Learn more about her at Melissa Preston Counseling.

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