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Eating Disorders in Athletes

  • 10/17/2011 3:45:00 PM
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Eating Disorders in Athletes

Faith A. Lightfoot, BSE 

What do gymnasts Kathy Johnson, Nadia Comaneci and Cathy Rigby have in common? Over the past years they have all come forward and admitted to fighting an eating disorder. Cathy Rigby, a 1972 Olympian, battled anorexia and bulimia for 12 years. She went into cardiac arrest on two occasions as a result of it.

Whether the eating disorder is anorexia, reduced food intake or bulimia, excessive eating and purging, this disorder is not going away in the sports field. In 1976, the average gymnast was 5'3" weighing 105 lbs (BMI 18.6), and in 1992, the average gymnast was 4'9" weighing 88 lbs (BMI 19). This is the same period of time in which the obesity epidemic has emerged.

In sports where athletes are judged by technical and artistic merit, there is enormous pressure to be thin because many of the judges consider thinness to be an important factor in the artistic score. With this disorder affecting females more than males, many athletes in figure skating, dancing, gymnastics and synchronized swimming fall victim to the demands of lower body weight.

With medical complications such as electrolyte imbalance and cardiac arrhythmia, an eating disorder can be deadly. Such was the case for Christy Henrich, one of the world's top gymnasts in 1988. A US judge told Christy that she was too fat and needed to lose weight if she wanted to make the Olympic squad. This message from her coach led Christy to use anorexia and bulimia as a way to control her weight, and her eating disorders eventually took her life. In 1994, at the age of 22, Christy Henrich died of multiple organ failure.

What can be done?

Coaches and parents play an important role in the message sent about winning. To reduce the prevalence of this disorder focus should be placed in the following three areas. 


It is vital for the coach and parent(s) to understand that comments regarding weight and size can start an unhealthy relationship with food for the athlete.

The individual who struggles with an eating disorder may deal with a condition called female athlete triad, which is a combination of:

  • Menstrual irregularities

  • Weak bones

  • Low energy availability 

These symptoms can be an indication that healthy training routines might be turning into an obsession.


Coaches and programs should have a registered dietitian available who specializes in sports nutrition. Not only can the registered dietitian stay abreast of any early warning signs they will also be available to educate the athlete on healthy eating practices needed when involved in such intense training.


Due to the time demands and pressure to win, counseling should be made available to all athletes. Athletes should be encouraged and supported to accept the help available to them always being assured that seeing the help of a counselor will not affect their relationship with their coach or teammates.

Having coaches and parents who are aware and educated, coupled with proper nutrition education and counseling for athletes, will support the competitive athlete.

Hopefully the athlete struggling with weight and food issues will receive the support needed without resorting to dangerous methods of weight control.


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