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Parenting an Athlete

Reducing the Risk of Eating Disorders


Updated August 19, 2012

The causes of eating disorders are complex and varied. However, it is well established that people who participate in athletics at the elite levels of college, national and international competition are at a higher risk for eating disorders than the general population. The risk is considered even higher for those who are participating in sports with a focus on leanness or aesthetics such as dance, gymnastics, or diving. It is important that parents of young athletes in these sports maintain a proactive attitude about preventing eating and body image issues in their child.

Educate yourself. One of the most important things that any parent can do to help prevent eating and body image issues in their children is to become educated about them. Learn about the risks and how genetics, the media and other factors affect how your child views him/herself. Consider your own attitudes towards weight and eating. Do you have issues of your own to work on?

Get involved and stay involved. Although you certainly want to give your child space to succeed in their sport on their own, parental involvement is also important. Get to know your child's coaches and instructors. They will likely be spending a lot of time with your child and have a great deal of influence over your child. Listen to how they interact with their students. Are they supportive or are they overly critical? Do they bring up weight or physical appearance? If you feel uncomfortable about the way the person interacts with your child, or others, consider addressing the issue with them or seeking coaching elsewhere.

Make sure your child's program is well connected. Many parents and athletes want to make sure that their coaches or instructors are well-connected with others at higher levels who may offer more opportunities. However, it is also important to make sure that the program is well connected and educated to support your child's physical and mental health. Because of the high incidence of eating disorders within athletics, programs at the elite levels should be well educated about the risks and have people and programs in place to prevent eating disorders and provide support for those who are suffering.

Build your child up. Encourage your child in many different ways - not just those related to their sport or their appearance. Research has shown that athletes who have a high level of self-esteem have some protection against eating disorders that those suffering from low self-esteem don't have. It is important for your child to have the confidence to know that they can succeed in other areas of their life as well. If it turns out that your child is suffering from an eating disorder, help support them in whatever way is necessary for their recovery.

Make your child (and his/her health) your primary focus. It can be very tempting to get drawn in to the idea that your child will be incredibly successful at a sport that may bring them fame, a free college education or more. However, it is important to remember that none of those things are worth your child's happiness or their life. If it becomes clear that your child is suffering from eating issues, you need to be okay with the possibility that they may not be able to participate any longer.


Byrne, S. & McLean, N. (2001). Eating disorders in athletes: A review of the literature. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 4(2). 145-159.

Greenleaf, C., Petrie, T.A., Carter, J., & Reel, J.J. (2009). Female collegiate athletes: Prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors. Journal of American College Health, 57(5). 489-495.

Johnson, C. Powers, P.S., and Dick, R. (1999). Athletes and eating disorders: the National Collegiate Athletic Association Study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26(2). 179-188.

Petrie, T.A., Greenleaf, C., Reel, J. & Carter, J. (2009). Personality and psychological factos as predictors of disordered eating among female collegiate athletes. Eating Disorders 17. 302-321.

Sundgot-Borgen, J. & Torstveit, M.K. (2004). Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in the general population. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 14(1). 25-32.

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