Finding the Best Anorexia, Bulimia and Eating Disorder Treatment for Athletes
Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, are often found in athletes – a group in which they reach alarming rates. The sports culture, with its emphasize on optimal body size or shape for optimal performance, is many times an influencing factor in developing such a condition. Athletes are also at a higher risk than the rest of the population to suffer the harsh consequences of eating disorders. They already exercise heavily, so their bodies are depleted sooner and their health heavily tested and challenged. Athletes, along with their families and coaches, must recognize the problem and take timely action against eating disorders, not only because these can bring athletes to a state in which they can longer perform, but also because these conditions are deadly.
The high incidence of eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, among athletes is not accidental. High-performance athletes are usually concerned with “perfection,” which is often an influencing factor in developing an eating disorder. In an article for the Huffington Post, psychiatrist Kimberly Dennis also observes that denial, a common behavior in athletes who have to overcome physical limits as a daily matter, plays an important role in establishing such a condition. Sometimes, coaches that are pushing performance without necessarily considering the athlete’s overall state of health become part of the problem.
Not lastly, some sports emphasize the need for thinness, which is seen as an essential factor in improving performance. This happens in fields such as gymnastics, figure skating or running. Added to the stress that athletic performance involves, and to the usual risk factors and personal family history that may create just the right breeding conditions for these mental diseases, these premises make athletes a group that is highly susceptible to developing eating disorders.
Incidence of Eating Disorders in Athletes
Given these risk factors, eating disorders are much more common among athletes than among the rest of the population. A study of Division 1 National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes shows that an alarming 33 percent of female athletes have symptoms and attitudes that place them in a high-risk category for anorexia. Such symptoms may include an intense preoccupation with food, excessive fasting, binging, purging, fear of being overweight, compulsive exercising and obsession with training even when injured. This is not to say that men are immune to eating disorders, only that the incidence of these conditions is higher among women. An even more disturbing study published in 1992 by the American College of Sports Medicine reveals that 62 percent of the athletes involved in sports like figure skating and gymnastics are affected by eating disorders.
Treating Anorexia and Bulimia in Athletes
A handicapping factor in the attempt to treat these patients is the fact that athletes believe in the value of being thin as a basis for athletic success. Additionally, the line between being a dedicated athlete and engaging in compulsive exercising is often blurred by the fact that hard work is expected from these high-octane performers. However, the first step in anorexia and bulimia treatment in athletes is to help the patient recognize and acknowledge the problem.
An important part of the treatment of athletes who suffer from eating disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy, during which the patients analyze their attitudes, habits and thoughts; understand their causes; and work toward changing them and adopting positive life skills that bolster health. Their relationship with themselves and with food may be further discussed during group therapy, where other patients suffering from the same illnesses provide support and understanding. Group therapy also helps alleviate feelings of shame, stigma or isolation. Family counseling is very important in making sure that possible negative influences in patients’ daily environment are understood and removed.
Many times, the presence of an eating disorder causes anxiety, depression or even thoughts of suicide. These can be addressed with counseling, but medication is often prescribed to help with the process. Nutritional counseling helps athletes understand what their body needs in terms of food, how to plan meals, how to avoid excessive dieting and how to develop healthy eating habits. If the eating disorder is accompanied by substance abuse (an extremely common co-occurring condition), athletes must undergo dual diagnosis treatment that addresses both problems in order to avoid relapse. A medical team must devise an integrated treatment plan, and patients must go through a preliminary phase of detoxification.
Such treatment plans are common for treating non-athletes suffering from eating disorders; however, the treatment of athletes must include some additional steps. For instance, it is essential that coaches are also counseled regarding the dangers of eating disorders and informed about how they can participate in solutions for athletes. They must be educated in understanding and recognizing the symptoms of anorexia and bulimia. Most importantly, they must reevaluate and reshape their interaction with the athlete by emphasizing physical conditioning or strength rather than focusing on weight.
Coaches who become positive factors on the road to rehabilitation can, in an important way, influence how teammates treat and help these athletes, even if indirectly. Their healthy attitude toward body weight, size and shape can become a positive influence on the anorexic or bulimic person. Also, in the case of athletes, it is important to be aware of the effect of antidepressants on physical performance and adjust the dosage or timing accordingly. It is, therefore, important that athletes seek treatment from eating disorder specialists who are not only aware of the sport culture and its particular challenges but also of the particular needs of an athlete’s body.
Facilities with multidisciplinary teams that have experience in treating athletes are the best option.