Intuitive eating tips for parents of young athletes

Adapted from How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Confidence in Food and Body Written by Sumner Brooks and Amy Severson. Copyright © 2022 the author and reprinted with permission from Saint Martin Publishing Group.

Movement and its relationship to our body and health is the cousin of nutrition. It can be deeply rooted in diet culture, yet it is such an important part of our lives, and likely an aspect of some of your children’s favorite activities. The perfect movement for kids and adults is to have fun and develop new skills – it’s never about losing weight or burning calories. When it’s not fun – it won’t be for everyone – it may be an intentional choice for physical strength support, rehabilitation, mental health, or skill building. The main difference in our approach to movement is that the choice is based on the discretion of the body; It’s not a mandate from diet culture. We need to realize that in our culture, even when you say it’s “staying healthy”, kids are predisposed to know and subconsciously associate “health” with “thin”. “Staying healthy” is an association we should question and preferably not be linked to movement.

Of course, we know that for many kids, participating in sports is a positive thing: it builds sociability, it develops self-esteem, it’s satisfying, and it’s fun! Some children can develop their interest early on, and become passionate and devoted athletes in elementary school or middle school. This plunges them into sports culture from a young age. If your child is one of these avid athletes, we want to let you know about the ways this may affect your risk of developing an eating disorder.

We often see kids getting into a particular sport because they love it. Then, as they get older and approach their middle and high school years, there is more and more pressure on athletes to get an “athletic” physique, slim or slender. Sports culture comes on its own with an increased risk of developing an eating disorder and exercise. In fact, if you have a child who exercises heavily, you want to be more aware of what they are being told about food, eating and weight control within their sport, from teammates, other parents, and coaches.

It is estimated that disordered eating affects about 62 percent of female and 33 percent of male athletes, especially athletes who compete in sports that focus heavily on aesthetics, appearance, size, and weight such as bodybuilding, wrestling, gymnastics, figure skating, and dancing. Rowing, running, cheerleading and horse racing, to name a few. Among the high school athletes, 41 percent reported an eating disorder, and they were eight times more likely to have an eating disorder than their teammates who did not report an eating disorder.

Furthermore, one study found that the risk of developing anorexia nervosa for college athletes was 25 percent (females) and 10 percent (males), and bulimia nervosa was 58 percent (females) and 38 percent (males). These numbers are very high, and they make it clear that if your child is participating in competitive sports, just by being part of the sports culture, they are at great risk.

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The physical changes that come with puberty, along with more food for their sport and more interest in weight, shape and appearance, is a recipe for body dissatisfaction and an increased interest in food and weight. It’s common to find teens and young adults, with their newfound freedom to eat away from their parents more often than ever before, taking it upon themselves to start a diet without anyone noticing. That’s until you notice. This can be really intimidating for parents, but it highlights the importance of talking about bodies and normalizing body diversity and body fat from a young age – so that your child will be more willing to say no to the temptation to diet when presented as a potential possibility. A necessary step to help them excel in their sport.

The more movement in his life, the more naturally hungry your baby will feel. It’s not unusual for you to notice that your middle school child or teen eats what appears to be large amounts of food at once – their bodies are thirsty for this! Your natural reaction might be to encourage them to eat less, wait until dinner, or choose something “healthier”, which can feel really shameful and mean that you disagree with the way they eat. Ask yourself: Do you know how much they ate that day? (No, don’t – unless you already do, but you probably don’t.) Is it possible that they are really hungry and need permission to eat as much as they need without feeling guilty or embarrassed? Maybe they eat emotionally. If so, what they need is support, space, permission, and love—Don’t be shy to eat.

Explicitly stating something like “Are you really hungry for that? Or are you listening to your body? You had two bowls of cereal” won’t help them feel supported; This will likely create a downward spiral of shame and make them want to eat away from you, in private. Support them by reminding them of meals and snacks, food availability, and asking for their input on what foods they’d like to eat for breakfast, easy lunches, and after-school snacks. Involve them and show them that you want to support them in getting enough to eat and feeling satisfied. Home should not be a place where a person feels bad about what they eat.

If your child eats a lot of “light” or diet-based foods — particularly in high school age and even more so among high school athletes who are growing and very active — they are likely not getting enough calories to meet their needs, and their body will record So in the end. When the body and brain begin to recognize that there is a calorie deficit, neurochemicals and hormones shift to protect their bodies, often resulting in a marked increase in appetite and cravings. For some people, the pattern that ensues is overeating, alternating with restriction, and it continues. Many young athletes and active people who have high calorie needs but make it a priority to “eat healthy” (which for them may mean eating fewer calories) will begin to experience the urge to overeat. This is not a “normal” part of being a teenager. Although it is common, overeating is a direct result of undereating or unintentionally lacking fuel. So, even though your child or teen may complain to you that he feels “out of control” or “eats too much” — and may even gain weight — the problem is undereating, not binge eating. Restriction is never the way to peace with food. Eating large quantities
It can be normal, but when feelings of guilt and shame occur, or compensation such as exercise, vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, or food restriction, these are signs of a more serious disorder. Eating disorders require specialized treatment as well as a compassionate and supportive home environment that allows the child to recover from disordered thoughts and behaviors. Putting restrictions on food, no matter how much they eat, is never the answer. Eating disorder behaviors can also be a coping mechanism your child develops to survive difficult circumstances.

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