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The effects of eating disorders on athletes
October 28, 2021
Sculpted muscles, rock-solid abs, high endurance. A fantastic athlete with skill, passion, and a smile. It’s what everyone sees when he steps onto the field and makes a touchdown. It’s the athlete’s physique that the audience in the stands root for and claim as their “star.”
However, these stereotypes create an expectation that coaches, parents, and players hold for themselves. It inevitably leads to a toxic environment where the standards for athletes go beyond skill and into physical attributes.
Eating disorders have taken over the lives of many athletes, destroying careers and driving dreams to dead ends. Yulia Lipnitskaia, a 19-year-old figure skating Russian Gold medalist, announced her retirement from figure skating due to complications with anorexia. She was at her peak but decided that no amount of success was worth sacrificing her body.
Lipnitskaia was participating in what is considered a judged sport. It’s where an athlete’s physique plays a significant role in the outcome of their performance, as seen in figure skating, gymnastics, and diving.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 13% of athletes in judged sports have eating disorders compared to the 3% of athletes in refereed sports. However, the type of eating disorder varies for every individual.
Jessica Campbell, a nutritional therapist and founder of the Food Foundation, found that her most common clients are dancers with anorexia.
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the two most common eating disorders in both athletes and non-athletes. Anorexia is mainly restricting where there is a severe limitation of food intake to achieve weight loss. However, bulimia is when an individual goes into repetitive cycles of binge-eating, followed by self-induced vomiting and starvation.
These eating disorders can stem from various reasons regardless of the type of sport an athlete participates in. Campbell found that many of her clients develop eating disorders due to control issues.
“Often, people begin to feel out of control and want to gain control of something in their life, so they look for modifiable lifestyle factors,” Campbell said.
Variables like sleeping and eating are harder to control, leaving athletes to resort to controlling their weight.
However, over one-third of Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association female athletes showed attitudes and symptoms that placed them at risk for anorexia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Which makes you think, how are eating disorders affecting student-athletes?
Jayden Kollmann, a junior and one of the only female athletes on Carlmont’s coed wrestling team, has her own story to tell regarding appearance, motivation, and support.
Kollmann started wrestling during freshman year after quitting soccer and decided that she wanted to try something different.
“I immediately fell in love with the sport. It’s a great sport to get all of your emotions out. It is also coed (and) there’s a lot of different aspects to it,” Kollmann said. “You learn a lot, including discipline, which makes you stronger.”
However, she started off the sport with the wrong idea and immediately focused on how weight-oriented the sport was. However, this was simply the message that she was receiving from the sporting industry.
“My only knowledge of wrestling was from Instagram, Tik Tok, and what my friends had heard about wrestlers, so in my head, I thought that my weight was everything,” Kollmann said.
She soon developed bulimia due to the nature of wrestling tournaments, which group athletes in specific weight classes. She started to focus on these weight classes with the chance that a lighter weight could give her a much more significant advantage.
“In my head, I thought, ‘you have to make that weight’ because if you wrestle someone lighter, you’re going to have an advantage. Even five pounds makes such a difference,” Kollmann said.
However, she realized that she was running out of energy to do basic activities, let alone wrestle. Her hair started to thin out, and she began to see the negative impacts on the mental health of her parents. As her parents and friends began raising concerns about her disorder, Kollmann reached out to her coaches, who gave her the real meaning of wrestling.
“I think you have to realize that in any sport, your coach’s goal is that you’re healthy. That’s all they want. They don’t care about weight, and I didn’t realize that,” Kollmann said. “My coach explained that he was focusing on if I was healthy and if I was able to participate, not if I had to lose five pounds to make a certain class.”
She soon developed a close relationship with her wrestling coaches, Joe Patane and Ricardo Garcia. They made it clear that all he wanted for Kollmann was for her to be healthy, happy, and able to wrestle. Patane and Garcia emphasized the need to eat to keep their athletes’ bodies fueled.
My coach explained that he was focusing on if I was healthy and if I was able to participate, not if I had to lose five pounds to make a certain class. ” — Jayden Kollmann
My coach explained that he was focusing on if I was healthy and if I was able to participate, not if I had to lose five pounds to make a certain class. ”
— Jayden Kollmann
With the help of nutritionists, Kollmann was able to recover and continue her career in wrestling. She now understood the importance of keeping her body fueled and emphasized that her support system was what got her through this difficult time.
“Coach Patane and Coach Garcia were always so supportive, always making sure that everyone on the team is healthy. And then, of course, my nutritionist, my mom, friends, and family all check on me to make sure I’m doing well,” Kollmann said.
The support system that Kollmann describes is further expanded by Campbell, as she explains how it is important not to criticize but rather to be someone who speaks up and checks in when they see something wrong.
“Tell them, ‘I’m concerned when I don’t see you eat enough food for energy. I would love to help you see a professional for help.’ Then, be mindful of how you talk about food and body shapes. Set a good example and encourage healthy mealtimes together for fun,” Campbell said.
She emphasizes how important it is to prioritize health over sporting success. Kollmann claims that “food is fuel” and is a necessity to have the energy to thrive in any physical activity.
Similarly, Campbell finds that a large support group of family, doctors, community, and nutritionists is the best way to combat an eating disorder. She understands the nutritional value needed to succeed in that field.
“A career in the field is not possible if the nutritional needs are not met, so we discuss the nutritional needs of an athlete starting with getting enough protein to not only survive but thrive,” Campbell said.
With a robust support system and awareness of the food needed to stay healthy, athletes can continue practicing their sport and showing love for their game in a healthy and controlled manner.
“Health always comes first, and I feel like that’s the best thing my coaches have told me. It doesn’t matter if I make my weight class or not; what matters is my health. I’m a wrestler, no matter what,” Kollmann said.