Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact
Ask Dr. Gayle

How to identify eating disorders in high school athletes

QUESTION: I coach a girls' high school gymnastics team and I am often concerned about how some girls diet. I know concern about looking "good" is important at this age, but I wonder if it gets carried too far. What causes these disorders and what should I be looking for to identify eating disorders in my girls?

ANSWER: You are right to be concerned. Adolescent and young adult women make up the majority (80%-95%) of the population that suffers from eating disorders. But eating disorders plague female athletes at an even higher rate than the general population. And sports like gymnastics or swimming which accentuate a girl's body through form fitting uniforms can set the stage for putting girls at even greater risk .

One reason for the higher rate of eating disorders in women is thought to be the pursuit of an "ideal" figure. But eating disorders are not only about food. They are characterized by an obsession with body weight, shape, and fat. Experts believe that genetic, psychological and behavioral factors combine to cause eating disorders.

Psychological factors of low self-esteem, helplessness and a high need for external approval can propel young girls to invest in controlling their body shape as a means of coping with life stress.

But why are our young girls so susceptible?

Why girls develop eating disorders

Turning to food as a means of coping with low self-esteem is a major psychological factor in the development of an eating disorder. Feeling out of control, an adolescent can focus on food intake to gain control she does not feel in other areas of her life.

The emphasis placed on women to be physically attractive in order to be "desirable" in our culture multiplies the propensity to look for the answer in dieting. Finding themselves unable to cope with feelings of inadequacy or rejection, they may focus on a temporary "fix"--the promise of gaining positive attention and approval, through achieving the "perfect body".

Red flags

There are three types of eating disorders, bulimia, anorexia and compulsive over-eating. The two that are likely to be the most prevalent in sports-oriented girls are anorexia and bulimia. Of these two, bulimia is the most likely to evade detection. Below is a list of symptoms for identifying bulimia and anorexia. However, keep in mind that as a couch the most likely red flag open to your observation will be obsessive over- training and exercise.


Characterized by binge eating and purging (vomiting) the following symptoms may be evident:
--bathroom use after eating to purge
--excessive concern about weight
--large amounts of food are consumed with little weight gain
--bingeing followed by depressed, guilty mood
--chronic sore throat
--discolored teeth
--over exercising
--excess laxative use


Characterized by under eating, the following symptoms may be present:
--noticeable sudden weight loss
--obsession with weighing oneself
--extreme dieting
--loss of hair
--obsessive exercising
--reports feeling "fat" even after weight loss and increasing thinness

Since eating disorders can be fatal if not treated, and denial is high, it is critical that a coach with reason to suspect an eating disorder in an adolescent talk with her parents about it. Speak with your student first, but let her know that you will be meeting with her parents, if it appears that the issue has not been faced at home. If there is an eating disorder present, professional help is needed. Support parents to address, rather than ignore this disease!

Not all of the players you suspect will have full blown eating disorders, but your attention to the vulnerability that young women face can make a difference in the way you approach your students. You have an opportunity to impact their lives at a critical juncture. Read on, to find out ways you can help to prevent eating disorders before they begin!

(footnote: For more information and getting help for eating disorders, visit www. eating disorders.mentalhelp.net)

Return to Previous Page

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com