The Female Athlete Triad includes 1) disordered eating, 2) loss of menstrual periods and 3) osteoporosis (loss of calcium resulting in weak bones). The lack of nutrition resulting from disordered eating can cause the loss of several or more consecutive periods. This in turn leads to calcium and bone loss, putting the athlete at greatly increased risk for stress fractures of the bones. Each of these conditions is a medical concern. Together they create serious health risks that may be life-threatening. While any female athlete can develop the triad, adolescent girls are most at risk because of the active biological changes and growth spurts, peer and social pressures, and rapidly changing life circumstances that go along with the teenage years. Males may develop similar syndromes.
Nancy: One thing I’ve learned about athletics and eating disorders is that for the coach, the line between encouraging athletes to achieve peak performance levels and promoting unhealthy eating and training behaviors is blurred. For this reason, when coaches and trainers, are told they need to be more vigilant in spotting and addressing dangerous behaviors it can sound to them like their ability to do their jobs is being questioned and curtailed. They want to create winning athletes, and the traits that create champions—perfectionism, the desire to please coaches, and strong drive to succeed—are those often associated with eating disorders. They may fear that in order to encourage healthier behaviors among their athletes, they will have to discourage the very traits that make their athletes excel. What we hope the Toolkit will do is show that the better nourished and healthier the athlete is, the better her or his performance will be, and that although eating-disordered behaviors may seem to improve performance in the short run, in the long run they do not support athletic excellence.
Me: For many elite athletes who are competing at world class levels (whether collegiately, professionally, in the Olympics, etc), particularly in sports that may encourage (implicitly or explicitly) a high degree of scrutiny over body composition and weight for performance purposes (gymnastics, ice skating, running, wrestling, etc), eating disorders and disordered eating are increasing. Do you have any thoughts about how we might work towards helping athletes approach their performance and bodies from a more healthy standpoint?
Nancy: Yes, education and support for both athletes and coaches is very important. Some coaches are still not fully aware of the risks for and dangers of eating disorders among their athletes. We hope that once they do understand the facts, they will be open to discussing these risks with the team, stop making negative comments about weight or size, establish a zero tolerance policy for eating disordered behaviors, and foster a climate in which an athlete feels she or he can discuss these issues without fear of reprisal. For athletes, it’s great to have a sports nutritionist speak to the team about the importance of adequate fueling and hydration in their sport, to go over the warning signs for problem eating and exercise behaviors, and to encourage them to seek help at the earliest signs of a problem.
A lot of these strategies are about de-stigmatizing eating disorders, making athletes understand that disordered eating and eating disorders are a common problem among athletes, and that they can and should be discussed. Athletes should also know where there is help available, and that these problems can be solved with the right professional treatment. In many athletic settings, lack of knowledge about eating problems creates a climate of fear among eating-disordered athletes that makes it very difficult for them to admit to this problem. This causes a lot of suffering in silence. All the recovered athletes I spoke to talked about the tremendous stress of having to perform while also sustaining their disorder in secret.