Eating disorders afflict participants in at least one-third and perhaps as many as two-thirds of collegiate sports programs, according to Randall W. Dick, assistant director of sports sciences for the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Mr. Dick reported on a survey of NCAA athletic administrators at the annual meeting of the American Dietetic Association in Denver recently.
At least one case of bulimia or anorexia nervosa was reported in 10 out of 18 NCAA-sponsored men's sports, and 13 of 15 women's sports.
This comes as no surprise to me.
Competitive athletes will do anything to win. Athletes in low-body-weight sports (wrestling, cross-country, track and field, women's gymnastics, swimming, basketball and soccer -- all mentioned in the survey) truly believe the thinner they are, the better they'll do, and the less they eat, the thinner they'll be.
While this theory works when practiced in moderation, it fails miserably when carried to extremes. In fact, overly restricting eating will actually prevent weight loss.
Many college athletes acquire their habits in high school, where they are pressured by coaches whose nutrition knowledge is woefully poor. I have witnessed two different high school wrestling coaches tell athletes to simply stop eating, because "there is nothing you can eat that won't make you gain weight." In fact, most high school wrestlers can eat 2,000 calories a day and lose weight.
So it's also not surprising that the NCAA survey revealed "a real need for nutrition education as it relates to athletics."
But while all these folks need education, the athletes also need ongoing supervision by qualified nutrition professionals. Overcoming misinformation and poor food habits takes constant training, encouragement and reinforcement.
It also requires a proper training table. Regardless of what an athlete knows, or how strong the commitment, making good food choices is impossible if the right food isn't available.
Schools would be wise to encourage strong relationships among athletic departments, home economics units and school food service.
Old Mill High School in Anne Arundel County sets an outstanding example. Its Home Ec teacher, Cheryl Metzger, has developed a "Sports Nutrition" course for athletes interested in improving their eating habits. It's pretty amazing to see those gigantic football players and body builders don their aprons along with wrestlers of all sizes to learn to prepare great pasta and control the fat content of their favorite pizza!
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.