January 17, 2023
Managing Weight and Body Image Perceptions and Pressures for Young Athletes
There are many benefits to youth sports. Children who play sports get regular exercise, make friendships, and learn important social and leadership skills. Research has also shown that team sports can improve a child’s self-esteem and mitigate social and emotional problems — depression, anxiety, attention problems, obesity, and an over reliance on technology to name a few. But team sports can also put a lot of pressure on a child, and for some, an over focus on body image, appearance and performance can lead to eating/food and body image struggles.
The topics of dieting, calories, weight and body image frequently comes up for my athletic clients. For example, a 14-year-old client of mine recently shared with me that he is not allowed to have a snack at his friends’ houses or eat certain foods because his mother would be upset with him and possibly punish him if she were to find out. In talking about the foods he enjoys but “can’t eat,” he tearfully asserted, “I still need to lose about 5 pounds” and “My mom and dad told me that there’s no way I’m going to play college soccer if I don’t lose weight.” Another child I met with recently shared with me that her soccer game would improve once she got her body fat content down to 8%. Incidentally, both clients are already in excellent physical condition and play soccer at a high level, however, they falsely believe these things about themselves.
To the surprise of a lot of parents, research has shown that athletic youth are at a greater risk for developing eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder compared to non-athletic youth. Athletes can also struggle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder – a mental health condition that involves a preoccupation with aspects of your appearance or a falsely perceived physical defect in your appearance that is minor or can’t be seen by others.
And while most athletic children don’t meet full criteria for a formal eating disorder, a lot of them still struggle with disordered eating, and that struggle can become unhealthy and problematic.
The following are some of the main indicators of disordered eating for your child:
- Your child is preoccupied with food and weight in ways that negatively impact him or her socially or emotionally
- Your child skips meals, diets frequently or has anxiety eating specific foods
- Your child has rigid rules or routines around food choices and meals in relation to exercise
- Your child’s weight frequently fluctuates
- Your child counts calories
- Your child rationalizes food choices, and feels shame and/or guilt after eating certain foods
- Your child engages in compulsive eating habits to feel positively about himself or herself
- Your child uses exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to “make up for bad foods” to feel in control
If you are concerned about your child’s relationship with food, I recommend that you try to locate and understand the source of the problem. Is your child getting his or her bad ideas about dieting, weight or body image from his or her peer group or the media? Have you as a parent modeled an unhealthy preoccupation with diet, exercise, weight or body image? Are you putting too much pressure on your child’s athletic performance? If you’re able to identify the source of the problem, you’ll then want to correct the things you can – e.g., messaging and modeling healthier ideas about food, weight and body image if you’re the source of the problem. You’ll also want to normalize whatever false or distorted views about food intake, weight and body image your child believes.
Here are a few dos and don’ts:
- Don’t label food “good” or “bad” inasmuch as food is just food; instead, do strive for a balanced diet, complemented by treats or desserts.
- Don’t let your child eat most of his or her meals alone; instead, do have family meals as often as possible so you as a parent have legitimate control over what your child eats, as well as meal portion size. As a bonus, research has repeatedly shown that children who eat at least three dinners a week with their family have lower rates of social and emotional problems.
- Don’t buy a lot of processed foods or foods with saturated fats and sugars; instead, do buy a lot of healthy foods. Making a large fruit salad every couple of days for your child to snack on as they wish is a lot better than their eating something tasty but non nutritious out of a bag.
- Don’t talk about your own weight or body image negatively as a parent; instead focus on health over image, encourage a positive mindset, talk about poor messaging from the media or social media and compliment your child about how they look.
If your child’s body image concerns are minor, you should be able to correct things as a parent with productive conversations and by making changes. If, however, your child’s problems with dieting, weight concerns, food intake and/or body image are more seveve, getting professional help is advised. Seeing a nutritionist that works with athletic youth is a good start, and your child may also benefit from seeing a therapist trained in health psychology and eating disorders.