Disordered eating covers a large amount of dieting and exercising behaviors—and while it may not be as severe as a full-blown eating disorder, it can seriously affect a young athlete's health in the short and long term. Here, TrueSport Expert and licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Melissa Streno explains what disordered eating really is, and how coaches can help their athletes avoid and address disordered eating.
1. Disordered eating isn't an eating disorder
"Disordered eating is a step before a serious eating disorder, which is where we see a lot more clinical, psychological, and physical consequences happening," says Streno. "An eating disorder, as it's defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, really affects one’s routine, functioning ability, relationships, etc. Disordered behaviors can cumulatively lead to this."
Streno explains that disordered eating refers to behaviors that deviate from authentically choosing food that sounds good, finding a good variety, eating a moderate amount, and listening to hunger and fullness cues. "Deviating from those behaviors and using a fad diet, any sort of rigid rules, or even using exercise in a disordered way— over exercising with the intention of changing your body weight, shape, and size for example—can be disordered eating," she says. "Disordered eating also comes down to intention: If a young athlete is doing the keto diet or cutting out carbs because they want to lose weight, that is disordered eating. If they're under fueling and over exercising to fit into a particular clothing size or to meet a particular body image ideal, that would be disordered."
Both can be about control, though. "Food and exercise are examples of things that people try to control when everything else feels unpredictable or uncertain," Streno says.
2. COVID-19 has made disordered eating more common for athletes
“The stress and change surrounding COVID-19 has contributed to a noticeable uptick in eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors, especially due to the unpredictable and sudden change that occurred in athletes' familiar routines and structure," says Streno. "Isolation is a big risk factor, as eating disorders thrive on secrecy and isolation. There's less accountability from others to hold on to healthy behaviors and choices. There's less community and less interaction with people, especially within sport."
Additionally, COVID-19 has made getting help harder. "I think also, with everything being virtual, I've seen a lot of resistance to going to treatment or joining support groups or seeing a recommended practitioner because they just don't want to do another Zoom meeting," Streno adds.