Eating Disorders Among Youth Athletes

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles | March 21, 2016

Athletes are often believed to be the embodiment of peak health, which is why it's easy to overlook the fact that many young athletes deal with eating disorders. The British Journal of Sports Medicine released statistics that showed that an unsettling 18 percent of young athletes suffer from an eating disorder compared to 5 percent of the general population. We are not only seeing signs of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, but we’re also finding that some young athletes combine over-exercising with these disorders.

Eating disorders can cause devastating blows to an athlete’s performance and health in so many ways, including:

  • Musculoskeletal injuries during training season
  • Increased risk of sudden cardiac death due to electrolyte imbalances
  • Increased risk of suicide as a result of the link between mental health and eating disorders

The causes of eating disorders vary for each person. Young athletes experience a lot of pressure to perform at high levels while trying to adhere to the “ideal” body image that their coaches, teammates, and society as a whole have of athletes. They also tend to have strong work ethics and are determined to improve in their sport, which makes it even harder to treat their eating disorders if they take their diets just as seriously.

Educating key players like athletes, coaches, athletic administrators, and parents on nutrition is crucial in the prevention and management of eating disorders. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), for example, has provided educational materials to prevent disordered eating among their athletes. For some, all it takes is the knowledge that dietary restrictions and over-exercising will negatively impact performance in sports to start adopting effective sports nutrition.

The bottom line is to be aware of the signs and symptoms of potential eating disorders and promote a healthy, balanced diet to ensure that young athletes can continue performing at their best.

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles's profile picture

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles

Jenn Giles, R.D., C.S.S.D. is all about health and wellness. She has over 15 years’ experience, including a dual master’s degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Columbia University. She is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She supplements all of this with her spin instructor certification and USATriathlon Level I Coach Certification.

Jennifer is passionate about (actually, obsessed with) the sport of triathlon. She has been personally participating in triathlons since 2000 and running road races since 1992. She is a two-time Ironman finisher and has completed countless numerous marathons. She has been a member of Power Bar Team Elite since 2006 and competed as a member of the 2006 Aquaphor/ Sponsored Athlete Team. She was ranked as USAT All American Honorable mention in 2006 and 2011. Jennifer does all of this along side of her husband, Patrick, who is an equally accomplished triathlete and runner. They try as hard as they can to do all of their training and racing together.

She will tell you, however, that her most important, most rewarding and most challenging job is as a mother of four. She knows first hand the challenges of maintaining optimal fitness, overall good health and achieving goals while raising a family - of which good nutrition is the cornerstone.

Most importantly, she knows how to motivate, inspire and challenge athletes based on their own abilities, strengths and everyday lifestyles. She believes there is an athlete in everyone - no matter what their abilities are – and if those abilities are manifold, then there is an even better athlete in there!

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