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Red and Yellow Flags: How to Tell the Difference with Body Image

Young athletes are highly susceptible to negative thoughts around body image—and those thoughts can balloon into serious problems for your athlete’s health if not addressed early. As a parent, what should be considered a cause for concern or just a typical young person’s angst?

Here, TrueSport Expert and licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Melissa Streno shares some of the most common ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ flag behaviors when it comes to young athletes and body image. Keep in mind that yellow flag behaviors should be taken as seriously as red flag ones. The primary difference is the intervention required—for red flag behaviors, a doctor should be informed, and a treatment plan may be deemed necessary since red flags typically indicate a more chronic, potentially deadly problem. For a ‘yellow flag’ behavior, it may be possible to simply work with the athlete’s coaches and a counselor to improve their body image before it becomes a dangerous issue.

Mental signs

Yellow Flag: Increased Negative Commentary Around Body Image, Food, and Exercise

“Pay attention to the specifics of the language your athlete uses when talking about body image, food, and exercise,” Streno says. “For example, what is the athlete saying about exercise? You may start to notice an athlete begin to equate the amount of exercise they do to what they’re ‘allowed’ to eat afterwards.”

It may seem innocuous at first: An athlete saying that they are having a ‘fat day’ or that they’re skipping a meal because they didn’t ‘workout hard enough.’ Streno points out that if an athlete is saying these things out loud, the negative chatter around body image in their head is likely to be even louder.

Red Flag: Disordered eating behaviors

The more concerning version of this yellow flag is when it becomes a pattern of observable behavior, says Streno. If an athlete is regularly referring to skipping meals after a bad practice or ‘earning’ a treat after practice, that becomes problematic. You may also start to notice the behaviors around disordered eating becoming more obvious, such as skipping meals with teammates or starting to subscribe to a very strict diet. Any clear change in eating patterns is grounds for concern.

Even if the behaviors don’t seem to be overly restrictive and you’re not concerned that an athlete is severely underfueling, it’s better to address these behaviors early rather than waiting until they hit dangerous levels of restriction.

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Athlete Health Parent TrueSport