How can Gyms and Coaches Recognize an Eating Disorder?

Student Athletes

Eating disorders are brain-based illnesses involving food and body that are severe and can become life-threatening. These illnesses typically involve food restriction or overconsumption, body image issues, and altered food behaviors like eating in secret or skipping meals. Eating disorders also frequently include compensatory behaviors like overexercising, which puts gym and coaches in a unique spot to catch eating disorders. In order for gyms and coaches to successfully recognize and address eating disorders, they must first be aware of their common signs and symptoms.

Eating Disorder Signs and Symptoms

Eating disorders are serious illnesses that affect eating habits and desires and cause severe distress about food, weight, size, and shape. Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of their gender, race, age, or any other demographic categorization. The five types of eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, OSFED, and ARFID. Signs and symptoms of eating disorders that gyms and coaches may be able to spot include:

  • Dramatic weight gain or weight loss
  • Frequent talk about food, weight, size, or shape
  • Negative self-perception and self-talk
  • Limited food intake, overeating, or restricting certain foods
  • Excessive or compulsive exercising such as never skipping a gym day, attending multiple classes in one day, exercising for a prolonged amount of time, or exercising to “make up for” what was consumed during the day
  • Medical complications including dizziness, fainting, leg cramps, and other serious symptoms
  • In primarily men, a desire to decrease body fat and/or drastically increase muscle mass

How Coaches can Recognize Eating Disorders

Coaches are in a key position to spot eating disorders in athletes, which is why it’s important for all coaches to be educated about eating disorders. By being aware and knowledgeable on eating disorder signs and symptoms, coaches will be equipped to identify disordered eating in athletes. Certain body weight or appearance-based sports carry a higher risk of eating disorders including gymnastics, wrestling, track, cross country, football, and more. While these sports place athletes at an elevated risk, athletes can develop eating disorders in all sports.

Coaches are advised to be on the lookout for warning signs and symptoms in all athletes. Common signs to look for include drastic weight fluctuations, personality changes, restricting or overeating, or changes in mood such as anxiety or depression. Common presentations of eating disorders in athletes include:

  • A gymnast who has recently lost a significant amount of weight and refuses to eat with the team or picks at her meals.
  • A wrestler who purges before weigh-ins.
  • A football player who compulsively overeats and spends long hours in the gym to increase size and muscle mass and becomes extremely agitated or stressed at the thought of missing a workout.
  • A ballet dancer who appears to have no changes in food intake but disappears to the bathroom following every team meal or snack.

It may be helpful for coaches to read and listen to personal stories of athletes who suffered from an eating disorder during their athletic career and how they reached recovery. To start, we recommend learning Jessie Diggins’ story about the development of her eating disorder and her recovery. To learn more about the Olympic gold medalist, read Jessie Diggins’ story or listen to her podcast episode on Peace Meal.

How Gyms can Recognize Eating Disorders

Those struggling with eating disorders often frequent gyms in an attempt to compensate for food intake or to drastically alter their body presentation. Because of this, gym owners and personal trainers are in a position to recognize eating disorders. Gym staff can recognize eating disorders by staying vigilant and understanding the warning signs. Common instances in which gym staff may recognize an eating disorder include:

  • Gym members who work out intensely every day for weeks on end and who have expressed marked anxiety or disdain upon missing a day.
  • A male gym-goer who lifts weights for multiple hours in the day and adheres to a restrictive diet in an attempt to bulk up because he is highly dissatisfied with his appearance.
  • A gym member who has fainted while exercising but refuses medical care or food/drink upon rousing.
  • A gym attendee who states they will not eat until they reach a certain milestone in their workout or a gym member whose workout determines what can be consumed that day.

What to do if you Recognize an Eating Disorder

If a coach or a gym staff spots the warning signs of an eating disorder in an athlete, the best thing they can do is start a conversation. If the athlete is a minor, it may be a good idea to speak with their parents as well and provide them with information about what signs and symptoms you have noticed. Ask the parents if they are concerned and if they would be comfortable speaking with their child about what you have noticed. If the athlete is an adult, the best thing to do is speak with them.  

Start the conversation in a pleasant manner in a place with privacy where others won’t be able to hear. Start by checking in and asking how they are. Then mention that you have noticed some behaviors that are concerning to you. From there, list specific examples of what you are seeing that causes you concern. Allow them to respond and listen patiently. Remember to not make accusations.

It’s likely that the individual may deny struggling with an eating disorder. Eating disorders thrive in secret and often cause individuals to feel shame and embarrassment—keeping them in denial of the illness. If that is the case, be patient. Explain that you’ve heard them and that you understand what they are saying. Ask them if they would be willing to complete an eating disorder assessment. If they do, help connect them to a proper assessment run by a licensed treatment center. If they refuse, let them know that you are there to support them should they need it. It’s helpful to be educated on eating disorder resources, so you could provide those at the time of the conversation as well.

For situations where the athlete is in ill-health, it may be necessary to suspend their participation in the sport or activity until they can regain a stable level of health. Treat the eating disorder like any other illness or injury. If an athlete broke their ankle, they would have to sit out until it was healed. If the athlete continued to participate in that state, they will experience further harm. An eating disorder is similar—the longer it goes untreated the more severe, and even life-threating, it can become. So, if you are concerned, it’s okay to tell the athlete they must regain stability before engaging in further activity. Make sure you have resources for recovery and treatment that you can provide them with at this time. Remember, by addressing the eating disorder, you are helping the athlete and encouraging long-term health and wellbeing.

If you are a coach or gym staff interested in learning more about eating disorders, click here. If you are interested in connecting someone to an eating disorder assessment or recovery support options, reach out to The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977. It’s crucial for athletes to heal from eating disorders, so they can be fully engaged in their life and activities. Reach out, recovery is possible.

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