Preventing Eating Disorders

Sports environments and school classrooms can increase the risk of eating disorders among some students. The competition, need for the highest performance, concerns about weight and fastest times and bullying all contribute to the development of eating disorders on and off the field. Coaches and teachers are in a unique position to help identify and work towards preventing eating disorders and other disordered behaviors. Student athletes seem to be at a higher risk because eating disorders have no bounds within a sport. Bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa or orthorexia can affect anyone, of any age, in any sport. However, it does typically affect more females than males.

Lean sports such as running, swimming, wrestling, gymnastics and dance are sports that are judged on appearances and body shape and tend to have higher rates of eating disorders, but no sport is immune to an eating disorder. Athletics can be a great way to learn teamwork, self-discipline, mindfulness and the development of the importance of physical activity in daily living and therefore it is important that parents, teachers, coaches and athletes alike keep in mind these goals when competing in sports.

The relationship of a coach with an athlete can be especially important when trying to prevent an eating disorder. The athlete is influenced by the coach’s motivation, their body image, and their relationship with the team, the training, and their competitiveness. Athletes and coaches spend a significant amount of time together during the week, especially if the coach is also one of the athlete’s teachers. The coach or teacher can have a substantial influence on an athlete’s beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors.

The relationship between motivation, conflict, and performance has also been shown to increase or decrease disordered eating in athletes. If the conflict is high between the coach and athlete, and there is little support then typically the athlete may begin to show signs of disordered eating. Additionally, if there is a performance-centered or judgment based environment, there is often a higher rate of disordered eating among athletes.

Teaching about mindfulness and body positivity in schools

Research at middle schools and high schools have shown that engaging in prevention programs like mindful eating can help in preventing eating disorders.

Middle school programs that incorporate mindfulness also work to integrate reframing techniques to help youth reframe their thoughts with the use of dietetics and food science teachers. Studies have shown that eating disorders are deeply rooted in past trauma, low self esteem, unhealthy coping skills, and poor interpersonal relationships and therefore developing a positive body image and high self esteem is important, especially in school-aged children and adolescents. Some schools bring in short-term prevention programs or leadership training such as The Body Positive, Girls on the Run and Girls in the Know that explore healthy lifestyles, body image, and self-care education. Professional therapists, dietitians, and physicians in local communities that volunteer their time to these organizations often lead these educational programs. Other programs have guest speakers who are recovering from an eating disorder and share their personal story.

Taking preventative steps in the classroom and on the field

  • Another way to prevent unhealthy social atmospheres is to change the conversations from performance and appearance driven to team and quality driven.
  • When coaches and teachers start to focus on the team or class as a whole, talents of the person, as well as performance, it enhances the student’s or athlete’s self-confidence and self-worth.
  • Inviting dietitians to talk at schools on a regular basis about nourishment for the athlete’s body, mindful eating practices, and self-care are important for all students regardless of the age or if they are in athletics.
  • Being able to have the student and athlete focus all of their senses on how their body is feeling, what emotions they are sensing, and how their food tastes is a great tool to use in preventing disordered eating patterns.
  • Engaging a school counselor or a therapist to work with a student in school or on the team or the team as a whole can help with prevention efforts. School therapists can offer educational sessions on healthy versus unhealthy eating behaviors, and provide one-on-one counseling.