Eating disorders not uncommon for collegiate athletes

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BYU dietician and nutritionist Rachel Higginson works in her office. Higginson has helped a number of athletes overcome eating disorders. (Maddi Driggs)
BYU dietician and nutritionist Rachel Higginson works in her office. Higginson has helped a number of athletes overcome eating disorders. (Maddi Driggs)

Collegiate athletes are often viewed by fans as untouchable and unstoppable superstars —men and women who are “living the dream.” But these athletes can and do face very real trials, not the least of which are eating disorders.

Dietician Bev Triplett has worked with a number of both high school and collegiate athletes over the course of her career, observing that they too may develop underlying issues like self-esteem, control, and compulsion, among other problems.

She said that along with athletic training, resources such as doctors, nutritionists, therapists and family members can help anyone with eating disorder issues to address the problem.

Former BYU swimmer Whitney Allen held Olympic trial cuts in several events. She agrees with Triplett, saying her eating disorder started off slowly.

“An eating disorder becomes the one thing you can control, and the one thing in life that you believe is your decision,” Allen said. “Eventually, since eating disorders are very much an addiction, it no longer becomes your choice.”

Allen said it’s still a problem she’s dealing with.

“It’s three years later and I would still say that I have yet to come out of my eating disorder. It took me a year and a half of trying to handle it on my own and talking to multiple professionals to admit myself into a rehabilitation center. And that worked great for a time, but even after (that), I relapsed because it is so hard to not cope with life in the way you once did,” Allen said.

BYU athletics nutritionist Rachel Higginson said the statistics of eating disorders in athletes varies wildly each year.

A display in BYU dietician and nutritionist Rachel Higginson's office showcasing proper meals. (Maddi Driggs)
A display in BYU dietician and nutritionist Rachel Higginson’s office showcasing proper meals. (Maddi Driggs)

“Some years it is three-fourths of who I meet with and others (it’s) one-fourth,” Higginson said. “It is hard to give an exact ratio because many athletes will suffer for years before anyone discovers or they are willing to admit it.”

Allen said she thought most female student athletes would say they don’t have an eating disorder if asked. “No one wants to admit they do because it is shameful,” Higginson said. “I have talked about it enough where I feel no shame because it is just something that happened to me, but most are in denial. And if a female is getting the results she wants, however unhealthy, she will not want to stop.”

Eating disorders are rarely discussed but painfully experienced by a number of athletes. Higginson said common factors that lead athletes to develop eating disorders include an overvalued belief that decreased body weight improves performance, lifelong training to become an elite athlete, and coaches who primarily value success rather than the the athlete as a person.

Other common factors include low self-esteem, family dysfunction, parents who live and die through their child’s success, chronic dieting, a history of physical or sexual abuse, and cultural pressures to be thin.

Triplett recommended that those suffering from an eating disorder consult a doctor and incorporate a diet that promotes health and energy.

“Food is fuel,” she said. “The right foods are a means to growing the muscle mass needed to perform most sports, recouping from the workouts and helping the body to rest.”

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