Coaches need to educate themselves and athletes on the importance of healthy eating

Eating disorders in athletes usually occur due to lack of education

Athletes are commonly thought to be the healthiest people of them all, yet this belief is not entirely accurate.

Eating disorders are extremely prevalent among student-athletes — male and female — especially in cases where the sport has weight requirements or uniforms that put the body on display. These sports tend to be wrestling, swimming, diving and gymnastics, which are all sports that have a culture of athletes dieting to mold their bodies to fit the demands of the sport.

The NCAA's Sport Science Institute provides educational programs for collegiate athletes who struggle with disordered eating habits. 

In 1986, ASU instated the Eating Disorders Program, which consists of a number of professionals who are trained to help and educate students. According to the statute, "Students receive an individually tailored treatment program that may include individual and/or group therapy, nutrition information, medical assessment, and psychiatric consultation."

The program description says students can either be referred or opt-in to treatment and that intercollegiate athletics can request presentations to educate athletes on eating disorders.

While athletes are often under the impression that they are enabling themselves to perform better at their sport by drastically losing weight, they usually do not realize the true extent of havoc they are causing their bodies.

Terry Steiner, head coach for the U.S. Women’s National Wrestling Team and former NCAA All-American, said it is important to educate young wrestlers about the need to diet healthily, as wrestlers are known to engage in extreme dieting habits to move down weight classes.

“It’s just (about) a constant education because the old way of (losing weight) is you stock weight up, you lose weight, you do all these things drastically and you can’t sustain that,” Steiner said. “Especially when you’re playing against the best people in the world, you just can’t do it wrong. So, education is a huge part of changing (the athletes’) mindset.”

Steiner said wrestlers who want to move down a weight class will often take drastic measures to lose weight, such as cutting water and meals out of their diet. However, they should do just the opposite by drinking and eating enough so their metabolism works faster and does not shut down.

In a study with the American Psychological Association researchers Trent Petrie, Christy Greenleaf, Jennifer Carter and Justine Reel, found 37 percent of their sample of male collegiate athletes exercised at least two hours daily to burn calories and over 14 percent had either fasted or gone on a strict diet two or more times in the previous year. Almost 17 percent said they binge-ate one or more times a week.

It is frequent in gymnastics to see female athletes who suffer from anorexia nervosa and bulimia to keep up with the small build the sport promotes. In an independent study Petrie found that in a sample of 215 collegiate gymnasts, more than 60 percent of them met his criteria for intermediate disordered eating habits.

Additionally, a study conducted by the Josue de Castro Nutrition Institute found that just over 44 percent of its sample of female swimmers between the ages of 11 and 19 had disordered eating habits.

Although many sports seem to have their own unhealthy dieting habits ingrained in their culture, the solution to the problem remains the same: education.

Ultimately, this element of education boils down to whether coaches are knowledgeable in how to teach their athletes healthy dieting habits and whether they are actually doing so.

“First and foremost, the biggest perpetrator of the problem is coaches the not educating themselves and going on what they’ve always known and what they’ve learned instead of educating themselves and changing course,” Steiner said.

Athletes, particularly young, student-athletes, are extremely susceptible to the influence of their coaches. Therefore, if a coach tells his or her athletes to stay hydrated or eat more, the athlete will more likely than not listen to him or her.

“Athletes are pretty compliant; they will usually listen to what a coach says,” Steiner said. “So just making sure that there’s that education there, not only for the athlete, but it’s about getting the coach educated on it too. If a coach isn’t teaching the right thing, he’ll have a whole team of athletes that is probably doing things wrong."

Overall, as a mentor, it is a coach’s job to make sure their athletes are not only performing to the best of their ability, but also that they are not engaging in any unhealthy, disordered behaviors.

Reach the columnist at or follow @alexandrawolfe_ on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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