Years ago, as a college varsity swimmer, I was surprised when one of my teammates told me she had struggled with an eating disorder. I knew this was a common problem in sports such as gymnastics and figure skating, where an athlete's appearance is constantly judged, but had assumed - wrongly - that a sport where speed trumped glamour would confer protection against disordered eating.
But as a new story from NBC Bay Area explains today, both male and female college athletes from any sport are vulnerable to eating disorders, often triggered by anxiety about keeping a spot on a competitive team or belief that a lighter body weight will enhance performance. In my teammate's case, a coach told her she'd swim faster if she lost weight, then unintentionally reinforced unhealthy habits by praising her when her weight dropped quickly after she severely restricted what she ate.
The NBC story points out that the scope of the problem among college athletes isn't well understood, and many colleges ignore existing NCAA recommendations to ask athletes about weight and body image problems as part of their medical screening. Stanford adolescent medicine specialist Jennifer Carlson, MD, is among those who provides comment in the piece:
Pediatrician Jennifer Carlson works with dozens of student athletes as part of the eating disorders care team at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. She believes disordered eating is a problem campuses often overlook.
"It is key to have some kind of question where you're asking about these issues because otherwise they may not come up," Carlson said. "We have seen athletes who at age 20-21, have fractures that you should not be seeing until someone is more at the age of 50 or 60."
Carlson is now working on a studying looking at medical history forms for Stanford athletes to determine whether athletes who showed symptoms of disordered eating and malnutrition went on to suffer serious injuries.
"We looked over the course of their college career to see did they sustain any stress fracture or bone injury, so we can say if an athlete had this score, what was their likelihood of developing a stress fracture over their college career," Carlson explained. The goal is to develop a tool that will help coaches and trainers identify students at risk so they can be treated early.
The NBC piece is the first in a planned series on eating disorders among college athletes. I'm glad to see this issue getting attention, and I'm looking forward to the other pieces.
As for my teammate, she was lucky: She was able to get the help she needed quickly, before physical problems set in that could have ended her athletic career. By the time she told me about what had happened, she was already well on her way back to eating healthfully and swimming better than ever.
Previously: Stanford expert on new treatment guidelines for teens' eating disorders, Incorporating the family in helping teens overcome eating disorders and Researchers call for improvements to health screenings for female college athletes
Photo in thumbnail by Renee Prisble