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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 3, No. 2 - March/April 2011

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Physical Activity & Eating Disorders

By June Alexander

Today there is pressure on young people especially those involved in physical activities such as ballet, gymnastics, martial arts, body building athletics and rowing to eat certain foods and conform to a certain body shape and size.

For young people who love being active and want to be the best at their chosen sport, the ambition to be 'the best' may put them at higher risk of developing an eating disorder.

Careful management by coaches and vigilance by parents will help the young athlete or dancer avoid this pitfall.

When an eating disorder develops - and 90% of all eating disorders develop in childhood - sporting careers go on hold, so does the child's life and that of their family.

The best parents can do, is to be like the Scouts or Girl Guides and 'Be Prepared'.

I regularly speak with young people and parents, who describe when an eating disorder 'nightmare' enters their home, bringing chaos for every member of the family.

Prevention is best, but if the illness develops, early intervention will help overcome the illness and allow normal happy life to continue.

Parents need to know that they are not to blame if their children develop an eating disorder. Many factors can lead to an eating disorder in children including genetic, personality traits and environmental experiences.

Young people do not choose to be ill with eating disorders. There are complex, serious mental and physical factors that contribute to this illness.
If signs of an illness appear, prompt intervention is the best hope of quick recovery. At all times, parents can play an integral role with the treatment team in recovery.

For athletes, the progression from health to illness can be subtle or swift. Sometimes the changes may not be apparent to parents, who are busy with work or in caring for other children or family members.

Young people who develop eating disorders are also very good at hiding their weight loss - perhaps by wearing more clothes, or sloppy clothes. A coach or dance instructor or friends of the child, may be the first to notice a change in eating behaviours and mood.

Body shape and weight is especially important for athletes in sports requiring endurance (for example cross country running, skiing, cycling and triathlon), aesthetic (for example gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, dancing, and figure skating), weight class (for example martial arts, wrestling, boxing and kick boxing) and gravitation sports such as ski jump.

In addition, some sports have rules that make dieting and weight fluctuation common.

My daughter was an elite lightweight rower and had to register below a certain weight on race day. She was expected to be super strong and extra 'lean' at the same time. It was a delicate balance.

Stringent dieting behaviour prior to competition is common among athletes in these weight class sports.

This greatly increases the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Checklist for Eating Disorders

Early Symptoms

  • The young person may already be eating healthy foods, but may start to avoid their special treats, perhaps an ice-cream or chocolate bar
  • Young people may start to give reasons for avoiding meals including 'I've already eaten'; 'I haven't time'; 'I've a tummy upset'
  • They start a strict exercise regime- maybe in the bedroom, out of sight, or in the darkness, in the middle of the night.
  • They may feel guilty if they sit down-when they do sit down, they won't sit still-arms & legs will continue to move & rock
  • Some may disappear to the bathroom or have a shower, immediately after eating a meal, to purge the contents down the toilet bowl
  • The child may suffer mood swings -
    switching from being sunny & bubbly & eager to please, to secretive & withdrawn
  • For girls an eating disorder may be accompanied by severe weight loss & missing periods

Act Now Symptoms

  • Fasting
  • Having dry skin
  • Experiencing loss of hair
  • Not eating with family or friends
  • Discovering of diet pills or laxatives
  • Insisting on eating only 'diet' foods
  • Preparing own foods
  • Weighing & measuring portions
  • Counting calories all the time

If you as a parent suspect an eating disorder, see your local GP as soon as possible and ask for a referral to an eating disorder specialist. In the case of children and adolescents, seek a specialist with training in Family-Based Treatment (Maudsley Approach). This treatment, which includes the parents and siblings in the recovery process, is recognised as the most effective recovery program for children who have been ill for a relatively short period of time.

Recovery is possible. Remember that early intervention and treatment significantly increases the prospect of recovery and reduces the duration of the illness.


June Alexander grew up on a family dairy farm in Victoria in the 1950s. Is one of two daughters, she was her father's shadow on the farm. Her mother called her 'Tim'. She attended a one-room primary school. Around puberty she began to experience what today would be called a body image problem.
In grade six, she developed anorexia nervosa, a severe psychiatric illness that would challenge and shape her life. A love of the written word became a tool for survival.

A journalist since the age of 18, June worked for many years on rural and suburban newspapers as senior writer, editor and newspaper columnist. In the past three years, she has written and edited three books about eating disorders: "My Kid Is Back - Empowering Parents to Beat Anorexia Nervosa" (collaborator, Prof. Daniel Le Grange); "A Girl Called Tim - Escape from an Eating Disorder Hell"; and textbook "A Collaborative Approach to Eating Disorders" (due for release June 2011; co-author, Prof. Janet Treasure).

More Information

June Alexander
M: 0419 502 111


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