Orthorexia Nervosa: What You Need to Know to Safeguard Your Athletes
From the latest diet trends to never-ending image-obsessed social media feeds, raising young children and adolescents who have healthy relationships with food has become increasingly difficult in today’s body-image-sensitive society.
Orthorexia Nervosa (ON) is a relatively new psychological eating disorder in which a person becomes obsessed with eating pure, healthy foods to improve wellness. This disorder describes a person’s pattern of eating characterized by a pathological fixation on restricting foods based on their perceived health. ON is also thought to be more prevalent in athletes, with findings suggesting that student-athletes who train more have a higher risk of developing ON symptoms.
Since it is normal to see athletes maintaining a more controlled diet in order to enhance their performance, identifying ON may be harder to detect in athletes. Here’s what parents and coaches need to know to help athletes develop a positive relationship with food and grow confidence in their decision-making when it comes to practicing healthy eating habits daily.
The Dangers of Orthorexia Nervosa
Although eating well as an athlete is key to fueling for sustained energy throughout practice and competition, too much of a good thing can quickly become physically and mentally harmful.
With a hyper-focus on eating the ‘right’ foods, ON can lead to dangerous restrictive eating and malnutrition since athletes are excluding key nutrients (by potentially eliminating entire food groups) that help the body function properly and at its best when it comes to maximizing energy output compared to their caloric intake. Elimination diets can also lead to compromised immune function, decreased athletic performance, and poor health.
In addition to the physical impacts, ON takes a toll on an athlete’s life outside of sports. A study shows that orthorexic individuals may also suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, and may become socially isolated due to their rigid eating patterns.
More specifically, athletes with ON may feel guilt and shame when it comes to making decisions about food, their self-esteem declines, and sometimes their food choices begin to dictate their feelings and mood.
How to Spot the Red Flags
It is reported that most athletes with eating disorders are female, but male athletes are also at risk – especially those competing in sports that tend to emphasize diet, appearance, size, and weight. In weight-class sports (wrestling, rowing, horseracing) and aesthetic sports (bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming, diving) about 33 percent of male athletes are affected. In female athletes in weight class and aesthetic sports, disordered eating occurs at estimates of up to 62 percent.
With the progressive risks that come from a restrictive diet, it is imperative that parents and coaches are able to recognize the signs ON so they can intervene early.
Here are warning signs and symptoms of ON from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA):
- Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
- An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
- Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
- An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’
- Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
- Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
- Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
- Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on Twitter and Instagram
- Body image concerns may or may not be present
What Parents and Coaches Can Do To Help
Taking a proactive and self-aware approach to preventing disordered eating can go a long way. According to the results of one alarming study, children are even picking up unhealthy eating behaviors from their parents. The same study showed that “kids who watch their parents becoming obsessed with certain food types may mimic that behavior.”
Not only do parents and coaches need to monitor their own behaviors and attitudes toward foods and diets, they also need to know the proper course of action for an athlete struggling with ON.
According to NEDA, there are currently no clinical treatments developed specifically for orthorexia, but many eating disorder experts treat ON as a variety of anorexia and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thus, treatment usually involves psychotherapy to increase the variety of foods eaten and exposure to anxiety-provoking or feared foods, as well as weight restoration as needed.
Given that ON is more prevalent in athletes, it’s important that parents and coaches know exactly what to look for in their athletes by referencing the information above and taking action when necessary.
The sooner you can identify the issue, the sooner your athletes can get help.