Protecting Young Athletes from Eating Disorders

Are young athletes more at risk for eating disorders? Unfortunately, the answer is “yes.” Young athletes have the same risk factors as the general population and older athletes, in addition to several others.

First, they are often just beginning become serious about their sport around the age period associated with puberty. Not coincidentally, this is a time eating disorders often develop. The combination of greater intensity and developmental changes increases their vulnerability to an eating disorder.

Second, while coaches at the collegiate and elite levels of competition often have numerous education and training opportunities regarding eating disorders, many coaches at the middle and high school levels do not. Thus, coaches of younger athletes may be less aware of the risk factors, as well as being less educated regarding identification and treatment referral.

Third, although athletes at the college and elite levels of competition often have excellent medical backup such as sports medicine physicians, certified athletic trainers, sport psychologists, and sport dietitians, such medical backup is much less available to coaches and athletes at lower competition levels.
Because of these risk factors for young athletes, the following recommendations are offered to parents:

  • Become informed about eating, nutrition, weight, the risks of dieting, the Female Athlete Triad (disordered eating, low bone density and menstrual loss or irregularity) and how these affect an athlete’s health and performance.
  • Use and recommend that your children and their coaches use safe and well-documented sources of information, such as the Coach and Athletic Trainer Took-Kit provided by the National Eating Disorder Association.
  • Do no assume your child is healthy because of good athletic performance.
  • If your daughter has signs or symptoms of any Female Athlete Triad component have her evaluated for the other components.
  • When necessary, be assertive with coaches. You know your child better than the coach. Refer them to well-documented materials, or the book Eating Disorders in Sport.
  • Encourage, support, and participate in appropriate and effective treatment. Do not allow your child’s health or treatment to be subordinated to sport performance.

The Victory Program at McCallum Place offers specialized treatment for athletes with eating disorders and is led by world-class staff in treating this problem. We now accept adolescents into our program. Call 1-800-828-8158 or visit for more information.

About the Authors

Ron Thompson, PhD, FAED and Roberta Sherman, PhD, FAED are Co-Directors and Developers of The Victory Program at McCallum Place. They are both psychologists who provide clinical and consulting services to the Athletic Department at Indiana University-Bloomington. Additionally, they have served as a consultants to the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee on mental health and eating disorders. Their writings include: A Guide for Family and Friends, Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders, The Exercise Balance, and Eating Disorders in Sport.