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Sport Psychology Education No. 1 - Healthy Mind - Healthy Body Eating Disorders

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Athletes have it tough when it comes to body weight. Not only are you subject to the pressures of society, through, TV, magazines etc. to conform to an "ideal" body type, but you also have the added pressure of having to make a weight category, or keep your body fat level low for many sports. Such combined pressures can trigger what psychologists call an eating disorder.

What exactly is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are generally understood as an intense preoccupation with food, body image, body weight, and with behaviour associated with eating that significantly affects an individual's thoughts, feelings, behaviour and relationships with others.

Eating disorders can be viewed as being on a continuum ranging poor nutrition to clinical disorders.

Here are some examples of eating disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa - characterised buy refusal to maintain body weight over a minimum normal weight for age and height; intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even thought underweight; distorted body image (this person looks in the mirror and sees him/her self as fat even though he/she may actually be much too thin); amennorrhea (absence of menstruation) for females.

Bingeing - Binge eating is characterised by eating in a short peroid an amount of food that is definitely more than most people would eat during a similar time period. There is a feeling of lack of control over eating behaviour during the eating binges. During most binge episodes at last three of the following occur:

  1. eating large amounts of food, even when not hungry;

  2. eating large amounts of food throughout the day with no planned meal-times;

  3. eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much you are eating;

  4. feeling disgusted with yourself, depressed, or feeling very guilty after over-eating;

  5. eating until feeling uncomfortably full;

  6. eating more rapidly than usual.

Bingeing may be followed by fasting in a cyclical pattern. People who binge can look at about normal size or even a little overweight, unlike anorexia sufferers who look much too thin.

Bulimia - characterised, by recurrent episodes of binge eating. After the binge, this person will then make him/her self vomit, or use laxatives, diuretics, strict dieting, fasting, or intense exercise in order to prevent weight gain. People with bulimia look at about normal weight unlike anorexia sufferers who look much too thin.

How to Prevent Eating Disorders Occurring in your sport.

  1. Educate yourself and each other on the nutritional requirements of your sport.
    Use your Coach, the Sports Nutritionist, library. When using the library for nutritional information, get the newest publications. Use information from people who are highly accredited and whose experience is with athletes. Weight management programmes which do not take into account the intensity of elite athlete training will not help you. Nancy Clarke and Louise Burke both are top Sports Nutritionists and their books are in the Sports Information Centre.

  2. Goals
    Take responsibility for your health and performance - set long-term, realistic weight goals. The words, flexible, balanced and long-term should be the key words in your weight management programme. The only way to achieve short term weight goals is to use unhealthy weight loss methods, like using diuretics, diet pills, laxatives, fasting, fluid restriction etc.

  3. Think before you make what you think is a light-hearted comment to a teammate like, "You look like you've put on a few pounds. Time for you to see the Sports Nutritionist". Comments like this can trigger eating disorders in athletes who are vulnerable.

  4. Think before you joke about a teammate because of body weight (or anything else!). Some teammates, think that by joking or making fun of an athlete's weight/weight loss progress will motivate the athlete to do better (i.e. lose more weight, make a weight goal etc.) In short term, yes that is probably what will happen. However at a deeper level and a more long-term consequence of such behaviour is that the athlete's weight loss efforts, instead of being just another physiological measurement (like heart rate) to be monitored for the upcoming competition, becomes, a humiliating experience and a source of threat to self esteem. This trigger a cycle of eating disordered behaviour in vulnerable athletes.

  5. Share healthy information with each other.

  6. Eliminate unhealthy team tradition: Sometimes unhealthy weight loss methods become accepted by a sport or even become valued as part of its tradition. This is seen very often in sports where weight categories have to be made. Stories about who has lost the most weight in the shortest time, or the favourite dehydration techniques become like a badge of honour for those who can achieve such "toughness". Such anecdotal information has been shown to have a "contagion" effect. Athletes' competitive natures complicate this even further. So one athlete reports an unhealthy weight control method he/she has found effective and other athletes will try it. Thus traditions become established within the sport which lead to dangerous weight control measures being the norm. Tea members can prevent this type of culture developing by educating themselves and sharing accurate information about weight loss.

Is your food behaviour controlling you?

  • Do you avoid eating with others because you don't want them to see how much/how little you eat?

  • Do you feel that preoccupation with what to eat or not to eat is taking up most of your time?

  • Do you often avoid social occasions because of issues related to food, for example worry about not being able to get the food you want or worry about not being able to control how much you eat?

  • Do you feel depressed or unhappy with yourself after eating?

  • Do you find yourself talking or thinking about food all the time?

  • Do you feel unhappy because of your body weight?

Even if you answer yes to any of these questions, it does not mean that you have an eating disorder. But if you feel unsure about your relationship with food (if food is more like an enemy than a friend), this is what you can do:

  1. Drop in and see the Sport Psychologist. You don't have to make a formal appointment initially. Just have a chat. Anything discussed is completely confidential. The Sport Psychologist can help you understand whether or not you have a tendency to unhealthy attitudes to food behaviour. The Sport Psychologist can also help you to develop a positive, controlled relationship with food.

  2. Make an appointment with the Sports Nutritionist to find out if what you are eating is helping you achieve your athletic goals.

For more information, please contact:
Telephone : (852) 2681 6277