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High mental health risks among athletes during the pandemic

ONE in three current and former athletes are struggling with troubling relationships to food and worsening body image during the pandemic, according to new research published by Swinburne University.

 The University’s lead researcher Dr Georgina Buckley found current and former athletes are a particularly high-risk group for disordered eating.

“Disordered eating is essentially the subclinical state of eating disorders that occurs along a continuum of body dissatisfaction and a complex relationship with food,” Dr Buckley said.

“Treatment for disordered eating presents a far higher success rate for intervention as opposed to clinical eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.”

Athletes are already shown to be an at-risk group with the chance of developing an eating disorder twice that of the general population.

In the Swinburne study, one athlete described feeling a sense of guilt when seeing other people’s fitness updates online.

Another former athlete told researchers that controlling food became a coping mechanism during the pandemic. 

“In this chaotic time, I have found food to be a pillar of control,” they said.

So, I feel as if I am exerting greater control over aspects of my diet which is getting somewhat stricter than normal.”

The study points to online pressures amongst athletes’ communities to approach food and their bodies in the same structured way as they approach their respective sports.

About one in 20 Australians has an eating disorder and this rate is increasing, with approximately 15 per cent of Australian women experience an eating disorder during their lifetime, according to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration.

“They’re seen as almost super humans above non-athletes and for much of their food and body relationship they’re treated like robots where they’re expected to eat how they train,” said Dr Buckley.

“I think there’s not enough emphasis for athletes and former athletes, as well, to have pleasure, enjoyment, and social aspects emphasized as part of their food relationships.

“So, it’s easy to fall into that controlling state of food.”

Female athletes were found to be almost 10 times more likely to suffer from symptoms of disordered eating as opposed to their male counterparts.

“The intersection between social pressures and sporting culture likely accounted for the disparity,” Dr Buckley said.

Australian Institute of Sport chief medical officer Dr David Hughes says a key recommendation is for all sporting organisations to develop a sport-specific disordered eating policy.

“To help foster a healthy sport system for all athletes, we believe all sporting organisations should have a disordered eating policy in place that is tailored to suit the needs of their organisation and athletes,” Dr Hughes said.

Dr Buckley said looking out for athletes close to us during lockdowns is key to getting necessary support.

“If you’re noticing unusual or differing eating patterns or a change in body composition or a change in exercise patterns, where it’s become really rigid or controlled, that’s probably one of the most obvious signs,” she said.

“A discussion to check in with someone and see how they’re going, if you noticed changes, if things have become more stressful for them.

“There’s no such thing as not sick enough for people to reach support, clinicians welcome any level of stress it doesn’t have to get really bad for it to be worthy of support.”

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you care about, please contact the Eating Disorders Victoria Hub on 1300 550 236

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Elliot Goodyer

Elliot is a freelance print and radio journalist with a passion for experimental radio fiction, podcasting and international affairs

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