Eating Disorders in Sports Part 3 - 7 Strategies for Supporting an Athlete with an ED
Imagine this: you’ve realized that someone you care about is struggling with an eating disorder. You know the basics about eating disorders and the common misconceptions, but you feel stuck. You don’t know what to do with the information. How exactly can I help them?
You’re not alone - few people know about eating disorders, and an even smaller percentage know how to support someone who is struggling. While educating yourself on the basic facts is critical, the real work happens in the relationships you have with that person. Taking the appropriate steps not only shows that you care; it very well could save their life.
Today, we will be covering 7 critical strategies for supporting an athlete with an eating disorder. This is part three of our four-part series on eating disorders in sports. If you haven’t already, please check out post #1 and post #2 - they serve as an essential foundation for today’s content! Make sure to also subscribe to our blog, so you’re notified about new posts!
1. Stay informed about eating disorders.
Like anything, the first step on your journey to becoming an ally is to educate yourself about the issue. Mental illnesses are challenging to understand unless you’ve personally struggled with one, so learning as much as possible will allow you to better understand how to support someone. While not always intentional, the internet and the sports community are rife with misinformation, so make sure you educate yourself using reputable sources. Some credible resources include:
2. Encourage them to seek professional support.
The earlier someone receives treatment for an eating disorder, the likelihood of full recovery increases. Without treatment, approximately 20% of people will die as a direct result of their eating disorder. With treatment, the mortality rate drops to 2-3% (1). Since eating disorders are complex illnesses that affect all aspects of a sufferer’s health, a multidisciplinary team will increase the likelihood of long-term recovery. School counselors, psychologists, dietitians, psychiatrists, and physicians can support someone who is struggling.
3. Refrain from making comments any comments around food and body
While phrases such as, “You look so healthy!” “You eat so clean!” and “Are you really going to eat that much/that little?” can seem innocuous to the average person, they can be incredibly triggering for someone struggling with an eating disorder. These comments compound the eating disorder belief that what they eat and how they look matter, and that it determines one’s self-worth. Even if the comments seem like compliments or aren’t directed toward them, they still reinforce harmful thought patterns and behaviors.
4. Challenge your internal beliefs surrounding food and body
Living in a world saturated with a $72 billion diet industry, it is inevitable that you will internalize diet culture beliefs (2). Remember that it isn’t your fault, and you can choose to combat the toxic nature of these beliefs. Be honest with yourself about how you feel about food and your body, and take time to reflect. By challenging your diet culture beliefs, you are not only standing as an ally for those with eating disorders but also a multi-billion dollar industry centered around oppression and discrimination. (If you are interested in learning more about the oppressive roots of diet culture, check out Christy Harrison’s podcast, Food Psych)
5. Avoid giving overly simplistic solutions (“just eat,” “just stop”)
Eating disorders are complex illnesses that, unfortunately, do not have an easy solution. Often, eating disorder behaviors are just the tip of the iceberg. They are often maladaptive coping mechanisms for underlying mental health issues; eating disorders are commonly associated with anxiety, depression, and P.T.S.D. It can be frustrating watching someone you care about hurting their health when they can seemingly just stop, but it often isn’t that simple. Lean into that frustration, and continue to show up for them, which will ultimately help them recover.
6. Check in with them
Eating disorders thrive in isolation. One of the biggest concerns people have about opening up is feeling alone in their struggles. Check in with your friends, family, and peers consistently, especially if you suspect that they are struggling with an eating disorder. An appropriate frequency depends on the individual, but even a monthly text or call can make a world of difference, as long as it is genuine and thoughtful. Sometimes, all it takes for someone to feel seen and heard is a message checking in about how they’re doing.
7. Take care of yourself.
As cliche as it sounds, taking care of yourself is the best way to support someone who is struggling. You cannot pour from your cup when your cup is empty. Attempting to help someone at the expense of your mental health is ultimately ineffective and detrimental to both of you. It is not your responsibility to cure someone of their eating disorder: it is your responsibility to support them. Set boundaries as necessary and check in with yourself frequently. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Staying mentally and physically well will serve both you and the person who is struggling in the long run.
Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list; this is a starting point on a long, complicated, but worthwhile journey to supporting someone with an eating disorder. Our #1 piece of advice is to practice compassion for both the person you are supporting and yourself. Recovery is challenging, but it is possible for everyone!
(1) "Eating Disorder Information and Statistics." Mirasol, www.mirasol.net/
,falls%20to%202%2D3%25. Accessed 23 Aug. 2020.
(2) LaRosa, John. "Top 9 Things to Know About the Weight Loss Industry."
MarketResearch.com, 6 Mar. 2019, blog.marketresearch.com/
%20through%202023. Accessed 23 Aug. 2020.