Saturday, May 21, 2011

Eating Disorder Awareness

Happy Mother's Day

"There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex.  Oedipus had a very odd complex, but he loved his mother."   Tom Lehrer

This was originally scheduled for Mother's Day but for a couple reasons I decided to delay it.  In the long term it really won't make much of a difference because this is a pretty important topic.

A mother and daughter waiting for their triathlon  'teammate. '

Eating Disorder Awareness

While touring colleges with our daughter last week, I found this posted in on the wall of the infirmary of a mid west university:

                                                            Staggering Facts...

  • 54% of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat (Martin, 2007)
  • If mannequins were women, they would not be able to bear children.
  • Research shows that just 3-5 minutes of engaging in fat talk substantially increases body dissatisfaction (Stice, 2003)
  • Four out of ten Americans either suffered or have known someone who has suffered an eating disorder (NEDA, 2005)
  • As many as 20 million females are battling an eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia. Millions more are battling binge eating. (Crowther, J. H., et al. 1992)
  • Most fashion models are thinner than 98% of most women.
  • 81% of ten year olds are afraid of being fat (Martin, 2007)
  • 25% of American men and 45% of American women are on a diet on any given day (Smolak, L., 1996)
While I cannot speak for the reproducibility of these "statistics" you get the point.  Eating disorders are serious business and triathletes are neither excluded nor immune. Even celebrities like Paula Abdul, Justine Bateman, Karen Carpenter, Susan Dey, Tracey Gold, Princess Di, and Joan Rivers have experienced an eating disorder.  EDs have the highest mortality of any of the mental illnesses.  In fact, 20% of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart disease.  But, according to the South Carolina Dept of Mental Health only one person in ten with an eating disorder ever receives treatment.

If you're reading this blog it's because you're interested in triathlon performance.  Compiling a complete piece on eating disorders is beyond the scope of this blog but suffice it to say that it's a serious issue with endurance athletes and will have a negative influence on their performance.

Casa Palmora is a clinic in California that specializes in those patients with ED.  In their advertising they point toward a number of famous athletes who've suffered with eating irregularities including 9 time Olympic Gold Medalist Nadia Comenechi and Bahne Rabe, a winner of 8 Olympic Gold Medals in rowing who also suffered from anorexia which would ultimately contribute to his early death.

Others you'd know include tennis player Zina Garrison, skater Nancy Kerrigan, jockey Laffit Pincay, gymnast Cathy Johnson, etc.  A quick check of PubMed notes a study by DiGioacchmo et al. of 583 triathletes  where 39% of the females and 23% of the males scored below the mid point on a standardized test to construct Calorie Control.  "All of the subjects indicated dissatisfaction with their body mass index (BMI). The study participants revealed attempts to reduce body weight by means of energy restriction, severe limitation of food groups and excessive exercise...  The triathlon seems to be a sport that is susceptible to a higher prevalence of disordered eating." 

Nancy Clark, RD says that, "Athletes with eating disorders tend to be very talented, hardworking people who ache inside and fail to see their strengths.  Something inside them says they should always be working or studying or exercising.  Taking time to hang out and chat with others makes them feel guilty.  They need to learn being "human" - like the  rest of us - is more attainable than being "perfect."
So whether you are talking bulimia, anorexia, etc. they can be both treated and prevented.  We define eating disorder generally as an "obsession with food and weight that harm a person's well being."  The cause is incompletely understood, and although initially it may start with a preoccupation with food and weight, this is a multifaceted affliction. Societal pressure for "thin is in" or "you can never be too thin or too tan," excess stress or needing to have the feeling of being "in control" all contribute.

We already know that in addition to diminished athletic performance, physical problems can effect the heart, kidneys, GI tract, and lead to menstrual irregularities as well as dry, scaly skin.

For the person with an eating disorder, accepting the fact that treatment is in order may the single hardest step.  Occasionally inpatient hospitalization is required.  Significant counseling of the patient, spouse and family can all contribute to the potential for success.  The Internet is rife with help like the National Eating Disorder Association whose sole goal is to aid those in need by specialized, individually oriented care hopefully pointing to a successful outcome.  They are careful to address both the medical and nutritional components as well as assisting in securing insurance company coverage when needed.

In summary, this is a common, destructive disorder and if this blog leads to just one person seeking assistance, it will be my most successful writing to date.  Help a friend!

Credits:  NEDA
              Google images
              Denison University Health and Counseling Center


  1. Good article-but the "help a friend" thing is a bit off. If you have an eating disorder you will deny it (to the death in some cases)-and no amount of well-intended suggestions from friends or family usually helps. It usually takes a trip to the hospital to "wake up"-and even then change is not guaranteed.

  2. Cheryl - you are right on. Like many behavioral issues, it takes something big to "wake up." And, if it worked every time, we wouldn't have the Karen Carpenters of the world. From the outside, the choices seem obvious. But, from the inside, the person with the disease does not "see" things as clearly.
    Thanks for the comment.


  3. Thanks for addressing this. As former competitive ballerina, a judgment sport(like gymnastics) thinness was actually encouraged. I observe it now in triathlon, a time-based sport as well. The issue is that there IS a correlation between low BMI and athletic performance. Dara Torres made it to her 4th (of 5!) Olympics with anorexia and details this in her book. Subconsciously, the eating disorder is rewarded w/ rewards in athletic performance, so until performance drops, this may not be recognized by the "affected" athlete.

  4. I appreciate your sharing this. I suspect that there are many stories like this hidden in the annals of sport that we can only guess at.


  5. I received a nice note from Emma and a link to a piece they've put together, “11 Important Ways Colleges are Fighting Eating Disorders".

    It may be of value to many of you.