Thursday, May 27, 2010

Athletes and Eating Disorders- Part 1

Just a few days ago, I was saddened to read about a 16 year old high school sophomore named Krista Phelps, who recently lost her battle to anorexia. A talented, high school athlete from Des Moines, Iowa, Phelps collapsed and died while running. Just a few days prior, she had been 'healthy' (according to this article) and competing in her second state track meet. The community is grieving this devastating loss, and in the midst of their grief, some interesting questions about athletes and eating disorders are being raised. This is not a new topic of discussion- many athletes have come forward to share their experiences with eating disorders and disordered eating (read about Tanith Belbin's story here). An anonymous coach is quoted in this article about Phelps as saying "anyone who's coached girls sports long enough knows of at least one [girl who has had an eating disorder]."

There seems to be a very fine line among athletes who train to be as fit as possible to achieve their best performance, while also remaining healthy and taking good care of themselves. It seems to me that coaches are in a unique position to pick up on warning signs and act as a liason for their athletes who may be struggling with an eating disorder by directing them towards the proper treatment. The challenge is that many coaches do not know what to look out for, and do not always know how to handle such fragile and potentially life-threatening situations! For that reason, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has initated a project to make toolkits for trainers and coaches. Nancy Matsumoto, who co-authored The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders and has written for publications such as People Magazine, The LA Times, The NY Times and The Wall Street Journal (among others), has been appointed to create these toolkits. I had a chance to ask her a little more about how she got involved and what NEDA is doing to help come alongside coaches to support athletes who struggle with eating disorders. In light of Krista Phelps tragic death, I think this is something that would benefit us all to hear.
Me: I have been excited to hear that you are working with NEDA to make toolkits for trainers and coaches to help educate them about eating disorders. I know that this is still a work in progress and is not yet available, but can you share a little bit about your involvement with this project?

Nancy: Sure! Through my work as a former People magazine correspondent and as co-author with Marcia on The Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders, I have reported various articles on eating disorders and body image. NEDA asked me to bid on the job of Toolkit Coordinator for their newest online Toolkit for coaches and trainers, and I was lucky enough to be contracted to do the job. NEDA’s existing online Toolkits are the Parent Toolkit and the EducatorToolkit. I started working on the Toolkit in January. At the moment, the Advisory Committee, made up of about a dozen experts in the field, is reviewing the Toolkit. We hope it will be online in late spring or summer, and will be publicized at the NEDA conference in New York City in the fall. We are now brainstorming on ways to publicize the Toolkit, so you can definitely help with that by telling your readers about it. If you have other ideas of ways to publicize the Toolkit, please let me know!

Me: What kind of information is being provided to trainers and coaches in these toolkits, and what are the goals of such a project?

Nancy: The first sections of the Coaches Toolkit will provide basic information on the different eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia and EDNOS, binge-eating disorder and disordered eating. It will answer frequently asked questions and debunk common myths about eating disorders; detail factors that put athletes at risk for eating disorders (for example participating in a weight-class sport, such as crew or wrestling, aesthetic sports, such as gymnastics or figure skating, or endurance sports, cross country, Nordic track skiing); discuss eating disorder symptoms common to athletes, and the Female Athlete Triad (a syndrome of three interlocking symptoms, disordered eating, irregular periods and low bone mass). There will be sections on encouraging healthy exercise among athletes, the role of the coach in eating disorders, and prevention among middle and high school athletes. Oh, and there will also be athletes’ own stories and conversations with professionals: nutritionists, psychologists and coaches themselves. The goal is to reach out to, educate and offer support to coaches and trainers who are on the front lines of eating disorders, but often do not know how to recognize or handle the problem.

I think that Nancy highlighted very well an issue that is all too common- coaches and trainers, who are on the front lines, need education and support to properly handle athletes with eating disorders. To see what else Nancy had to say, check back here soon for the rest of her interview! And to find out a little bit more about Nancy, follow this link to view her website!


  1. Krista was from Kingsley, IA, not Des Moines. She was a recovering anorexic, and she was up to a healthy weight for the state track meet. However, two days later she went running and suffered complications due to the extreme heat. We had to watch her suffer this battle, and we thought and hoped she was doing better. We all love her and miss her very much.

  2. I myself am an ex-athlete who struggled for many years (and still struggle sometimes) with an eating disorder. How sad for such a young girl to lose her battle with an eating disorder. With many female athletes it seems to be a tightrope walk between reaching their optimal physical and athletic potential and falling into a dangerously obsessive and unhealthy relationship with their bodies.

  3. Excellent points. All Women are at risk for unhealthy eating habits due to the intense pressure they experience to look a certain way. Rapid weight loss is always a red flag.