WAG eating disorders

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Jun 1, 2022
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Hi! A while back, I posted about my transition from gymnastics to diving/wrestling. I ended up sticking with diving and volleyball, and it is going really well.

Anyway, I am a 14-year-old girl who has struggled with a restrictive eating disorder (not officially diagnosed, but recognized by medical professionals), since I was around 8/9, so very young. I am also a former level 7/8 gymnast and have been doing gymnastics since age 7. How common is this? What has your, your child, your gymnasts' experience been with their relationship with food? I do have a close friend (an Xcel Gold gymnast) who struggles with severe anorexia, but again, what of this is related even to gymnastics, since I also have non-gymnast friends with eating disorders?

For me, it is probably correlated to a lot of things. I deal with lots of different mental health issues; anxiety, OCD, depression, etc. I think my restrictive eating was a way of control, but did gymnastics play a part? Probably yes. You can often look around, see who's winning, and compare yourself to them. We also would line up in height order in leos in front of a mirror (is this typical?) It definitely did not help with body image. What is everyone's experience?
 

JBS

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Sep 3, 2005
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I worry about my daughters more due to social media than anything else. As of right now I haven't seen any issues with them... they both eat a good amount... my younger daughter eats a ton. They are both gymnasts.
 

JPC13

Proud Parent
Mar 25, 2022
445
It's funny you mentioned wrestling. I'm a guy, and a former wrestler, and I'd say that the overwhelming majority of non-HW wrestlers that I've known have struggled with disordered eating. Being the biggest and strongest person in your weight class almost dictates an obsessive fixation on low body fat and dieting.

RE gymnastics, I don't think gym as a whole necessarily leads to disordered eating -- however, there are a sufficient number of disturbing stories out there that suggest some gyms create a culture of disordered eating (e.g., everyone weighs in every day and if you come in heavy it's extra conditioning for everyone).

On edit: There's a very strong correlation between perfectionism and eating disorders. I suspect there's also a strong correlation between perfectionism and being willing to drill a gymnastics routine 500 times (i.e., the sort of things that competitive gymnasts enjoy), so my prior belief is that gymnastics selects for people who are more predisposed to eating disorders than the general population.
 
Nov 15, 2022
46
I don't have any concrete stats, but my understanding is that eating disorder rates are higher amongst gymnasts as compared to the general population. With that said, I think with the advancement of sports nutrition and the growing awareness of eating disorders, it's becoming increasingly passé for coaches to monitor their gymnasts' weight.

My story has a happy ending. When I was a teenager I lost a lot of weight due to a mental disorder. At first glance, I looked like a stereotypical anorexic gymnast. Many people expressed concern about my health, and encouraged me to get help. I didn't want to get help, even though I was miserable. It wasn't until I noticed my gymnastics performance suffering when I decided to see a therapist. If it weren't for gymnastics, I might not have had this wakeup call.
 
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Jun 1, 2022
4
14
There's a very strong correlation between perfectionism and eating disorders. I suspect there's also a strong correlation between perfectionism and being willing to drill a gymnastics routine 500 times (i.e., the sort of things that competitive gymnasts enjoy), so my prior belief is that gymnastics selects for people who are more predisposed to eating disorders than the general population.
That’s what I think as well. Not only am I a perfectionist in gymnastics as I am with restrictive eating, I also honestly had a similar relationship with the sport and my ed as in, I was obsessed with both of them. Obviously gymnastics is a more healthy thing to be obsessed with than food, but both were hugely tied up in my identity and an escape from real life problems.

As for wrestling, if anything, I found it helped me. Yes, we were weighed and everyone knew our weight but it was simply a measure of how we played the sport and if anything a source of pride, not a source of our worth. Especially because I wrestled all boys, it wasn’t skinny girls I was comparing myself with. However, knowing my weight can be a huge trigger for me and having the opportunity to know it every practice did cause me to strive to lose weight, but it was less related to the sport and more the weighing opportunity which there are in a lot of places. My parents also refuse to have a scale at our house.

As for what JBS said, social media was honestly never a huge trigger for me, at least, not any more than obsessively reading books about anorexia which I did.
 

cmg

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Jul 2, 2018
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It is sad, but I feel like a lot of athletes, both male and female, are consumed with weight. Runners also have a high correlation with eating disorders, especially long-distance runners. Athletes lose a little weight, perform better, and then want to lose more. At first there is success as times get faster, but if taken to extreme major health issues start popping up like stress fractures, and ability to fight off colds, flu, etc. I ran track a very long time ago and weighing athletes, determining body composition was pretty normal. There is a very fine line between ideal race weight and too thin. I think awareness is better now, but I feel like obsessive control of weight is still a major issue with athletes especially female athletes. Some sports are prone to these issues like gymnastics, ballet/dance, track and field, cross country. I am sure there are many others. I wish teams (club and college) would just focus on good nutrition and what an athlete needs to perform for the long term. Education is key and colleges especially should have resources available to its athletes.
 
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JPC13

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Mar 25, 2022
445
...if taken to extreme major health issues start popping up like stress fractures, and ability to fight off colds, flu, etc.
This thread hits a nerve with me. Ever since moving to a cold weather state my weight has naturally varied a bit from warm to cold months. One year I made a serious effort to maintain my warm weather weight all through the winter by dieting. I've never been sick so many times in one winter. Never again. I always let myself get soft in winter now.
 
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katrid11

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Sep 1, 2020
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There is definitely a correlation (IMO) between perfectionism, Type A competitive athletes, and eating disorders. It does not mean one is diagnosed but that they monitor every bite far more carefully than others do. My time at a gym was limited but it was in the 1980s and we were evaluated by "type" and "size".

I know I struggled with body image, weight numbers, and being my best competitive self. I was always concerned that if I ate too much one day my performance the next day was b/c of it. To the point where I would reduce calories to 900 a day to avoid bloating etc. Even today, if I was to step on a scale, I would likely reduce what I ate later that day if I was not happy with the number. Instead I try very hard to only concentrate on "how" my clothes feel and "how" strong I feel rather than an actual size, number, etc.

We spend more time educating our kids b/c of my struggles. I wish more gyms talked about healthy fuel-providing snacks for the teams. I wish they talked more about what foods worked best at what times and that it is OK to eat some candy, sweets, etc.

Best I saw was at Beam Queen- they had an entire session dedicated to nutrition. My DD came out of it with a great list of good snacks during practice and good foods to eat pre-practice/meet.
 
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Lucia

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Jun 6, 2019
119
I don’t have any stats, but my sister struggled for years with anorexia, and she was both a competitive runner and very “type A.” I do think that at a certain level gymnastics self-selects for perfectionist-type personalities. I worry about this with my daughter and try my hardest not to speak out loud about dissatisfaction with my own post kiddo weight.
 

Happyfeet

Proud Parent
Mar 2, 2021
18
It's funny you mentioned wrestling. I'm a guy, and a former wrestler, and I'd say that the overwhelming majority of non-HW wrestlers that I've known have struggled with disordered eating. Being the biggest and strongest person in your weight class almost dictates an obsessive fixation on low body fat and dieting.

RE gymnastics, I don't think gym as a whole necessarily leads to disordered eating -- however, there are a sufficient number of disturbing stories out there that suggest some gyms create a culture of disordered eating (e.g., everyone weighs in every day and if you come in heavy it's extra conditioning for everyone).

On edit: There's a very strong correlation between perfectionism and eating disorders. I suspect there's also a strong correlation between perfectionism and being willing to drill a gymnastics routine 500 times (i.e., the sort of things that competitive gymnasts enjoy), so my prior belief is that gymnastics selects for people who are more predisposed to eating disorders than the general population.
I totally agree with this when you think of risk factors both internally and externally gymnastics can be a recipe for this.

For instance:
Internal factors
1) Female (statistically more likely than males to have eating disorders)
2) Obsessive, exact and perfectionistic personality (most gymnasts)
3) Highly goal oriented (it takes a lot of effort and self-discipline to not eat for extended periods of time)
4) Ability to ignore body cues and block out pain/discomfort (like it or not this is something at least historically gymnasts are encouraged to do)

External factors:
1) Culture which promotes being tiny (like it or not even high level "larger" role model gymnasts are still smaller than much of the population). Even if a gym is aware of this and works to address this it is still present. This is not even taking into consideration all the variety of emphasis any gym will put on nutrition, eating, weight etc (some not much, some with regular weigh ins etc)
2) Families which are busy and don't sit down to eat regular meals together. Eating regular meals together as a family is a protective factor for eating disorders and I assume if someone is at the gym for 5hrs after school this isn't happening.
3) Strict rules, regimented, compliance demanding - this can be in a family or a gym (some youth are spending more time with coaches than parents...). The more choice and control you give young people the less likely they are to try to grab control in other ways.

These are just some examples but you can see how a gymnastics lifestyle would set someone up with many of these...
 
Feb 16, 2022
10
44
I agree with all of the above about personality and environmental factors, but one thing that is often overlooked is the actual purely nutritional/physiological aspect of it. This is something that is still being investigated scientifically, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence and certainly my experience backs it - namely that in individuals with a predisposition to become anorexic, a state of malnutrition actually induces anorexic thoughts and behaviours.

My own experience was that I grew up with severe body image issues ('too tall' and, in the eyes of my coach, 'too fat' to be a gymnast, but wanting nothing more), but never had any actual food issues until, a few years after quitting gymnastics, I lost some weight triggered by an uncle's comment about how slim and athletic I was (when I was convinced I was fat), and at a certain weight X (low normal BMI), some switch flicked in my brain and I became terrified of regaining the weight. This led to more and more restriction and severe anorexia. Interestingly, many years after I recovered, I lost some weight due to illness and ended up at weight X again, and it triggered enormous food fears. This was after not having had any body image issues in 15 years, and even as I was really struggling to eat, I had no real idea why, since I had not realistic fear of getting fat, I knew I had felt perfectly fine before getting ill and would feel fine again if I regained the weight, but the anorexic thinking of having to restrict was just really strong again. So this really fits with the theory of nutritional deficiency playing a major role in triggering and maintaining restrictive behaviour.

Now obviously, in a sport where weight is not irrelevant, and optimal performance weight is typically not far above the personal limit of "too thin", an athlete is far more likely to be close to this limit and, for whatever reason, to dip below it. Thus, someone with a predisposition towards anorexia in a sport like gymnastics is far more likely to actually experience the disease than if they led a sedentary liefstyle with their weight always safely above their personal tipping point.