Swimmer Amanda Beard, gymnast Nadia Comaneci, and skater Nancy Kerrigan at their peak, they were some of the fittest and fastest in the world. But behind their public victories were private battles with eating disorders. We have more on the major hurdle affecting many of our top athletes.
Meters, seconds and scores…when you're at the Olympics, it's all about the numbers. But at the top, the numbers on the scores may be just as important as the ones on the scale.
"I do have to watch what I eat. There are the days the coach will come out and he'll tell all of us girls like straight up your fat. You have to look the part so it's like how am I going say I'm a runner and not look like a runner," said Damu Cherry Mitchell, an Olympic hurdler.
But public pressure to "look" the part is fueling an unhealthy trend.
"Eating disorders are at epidemic proportions these days and athletes are a population that is at an increased risk," said Whitney Post, President/co-founder of Eating for Life Alliance.
One in five elite female athletes suffer from disordered eating, and it's not just the pros, one in 4 college-aged women binge and purge to manage weight. Post says competitive traits make athletes more vulnerable.
"They tend to be perfectionists, they tend to be goal oriented, they tend to be really driven to be successful. You have to be really good at pushing down the body's signals," Post said.
Post co-founded the non-profit Eating for Life Alliance.
"I always felt a real calling to do something larger to promote eating disorder recovery," Post explained.
It's a calling that wasn't by coincidence.
"My rowing career and my eating disorder career pretty much started at the same time," Post said.
For nearly 15 years the world champion rower and Olympics alternate battled bulimia.
"In the context of all the pressure and all the fear to make weight that was all I was doing. My weight would swing like 40 pounds or so…in the course of one year."
Because of their training, athletes can be harder to spot.
"It's very shameful, it's very secretive and you don't want to be doing it," Post admitted.
Less energy, more frequent strains, and needing longer recovery time are all signs that there's a problem.
"There's higher risk for injuries, there's long term fertility issue risk," Post added.
The biggest mistakes parents, coaches and teammates make is keeping quiet.
"The longer eating disorders go on the harder they are to treat," Post said.
Post says of all of her victories, the biggest came without fanfare or medals
"My most important accomplishment was my recovery from an eating disorder. My life really turned a corner when I found what I needed for a full recovery," Post said.
A message she hopes to share with girls everywhere...including her own.
"It's such a tough culture for girls these days and I think take it as it comes and see what kind of girl she is and then respond accordingly," Post said.
If you thought disordered eating was just a female problem, think again. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 33 percent of male athletes in aesthetic or weight class sports are affected by eating disorders.
Eating disorders are most common in athletes that participate in the following sports:
- Ballet and other dance
- Figure skating
- Horse racing
LONG TERM: Long term and serious medical complications include cardiac problems and what is known as the "Female Athlete Triad." The Triad refers to disordered eating, loss of menses, and osteoporosis. The resulting medical complications are often permanent and irreversible. Bone loss starts as soon as six months from loss of menstruation.
In addition, one study found that anorexics were seven times more likely to develop stress fractures as a result of their bone density loss. This not only has immediate consequences on their performance but also long term consequences such as chronic joint problems and increased risk of fractures for the rest of their lives.
EATING FOR LIFE: Eating disorders are the most secretive of mental health issues and often go untreated because of the lack of awareness, education, and resources available. The Mission of Eating For Life Alliance is to make user-friendly information, resources, protocols, and the wisdom of the nation’s experts available to everyone. ELA reaches out to students on college campuses. College is not only a time when eating disorders often develop — but an excellent time to address and heal from them. For more information on signs, recovery and the Eating For Life organization, visit www.eatingforlife.org.