Athletes & Eating Disorders: 4 Surprises I’ve Discovered

This semester, I have the amazing opportunity to serve as a nutrition intern for the Walden GOALS Program for competitive athletes. In my first few weeks, I’ve not only seen the impact eating disorders can have on athletes of all levels, but more importantly, how these challenges can turn into stories of inspiration, hope and recovery.

I’ve also discovered these four things, all which came as a surprise (at least to me):

I had several misconceptions about eating disorders

Coming in, I believed eating disorders stemmed from the desire to be “thin.” I’m now learning that eating disorders are a disease that individuals of all genders suffer from in a variety of ways. They don’t just stem from social media and body image issues; they can be influenced by genetics and originate as a coping skill for those suffering from other conditions such as anxiety, depression and/or trauma. More importantly, I’ve recognized no two circumstances are the same. When approaching treatment, each person who suffers from an eating disorder has unique needs, struggles, copes differently and responds to therapy in distinct ways.

Recovery takes time

Training to be an elite athlete and recovering from an eating disorder share some remarkable similarities. While elite athletes work with a team of specialized coaches, set short- and long-term goals and dedicate time to their training and skills, eating disorder treatment requires the same type of components and commitments: a team of expert providers, ongoing goal setting and an investment of time and energy. This perspective is important for athletes to recognize as recovery from an eating disorder won’t happen overnight. Thinking of recovery as small steps toward achieving long-term goals may help to make the process seem less daunting.

Athletes truly have unique needs

Athletes are disciplined, mentally tough, driven to succeed, sometimes perfectionists and usually quite resilient when faced with adversity. While these interpersonal attributes help achieve success in sport, they can also influence the development of an eating disorder in a vulnerable individual. For these reasons, it is important for athletes and their treatment team to address how these qualities may help or hinder their recovery when working through treatment.

More training does not necessarily equal better performance.

Growing up, I always thought that more intense and longer hours spent training for my sport would bring me more success. Now, I recognize how this message can be very misleading to athletes. While training can certainly benefit performance, it is important to understand the level of stress exercise can play on the body. The GOALS Program has helped me better appreciate the relationship between exercise and nutrition, specifically seeing how one’s training intensity is often determined by how effectively you fuel and recover. Proper nutrition and rest are essential.

If you – or someone you know – is an athlete struggling with an eating disorder, help is here.

####

Lauren Smith is pursuing a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and is a Dietetic Intern at Boston University. Currently, she is a student intern in the Walden Behavioral Care GOALS program where she is combining her passion for sports with the treatment of eating disorders. Before coming to Boston University, Lauren attended Florida State University where she received her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics. In her professional career as a Registered Dietitian, she hopes to educate and counsel collegiate athletes to optimize performance in sport..