Checking for signs of eating disorders in teen athletes

Pressure to perform on field can lead to dangerous decisions at home

HOUSTON – School is back in session, so it's time for high school and junior high sports to get going again.

For teen athletes, the pressure to perform on the field can lead to dangerous decisions at home.

Doctors warn that teen athletes are at a higher risk for developing eating disorders.

Early in childhood, Kelsey Hensel found a passion for softball.

"I was in all sports when I was a kid, and that's just kind of the one I stuck to," Hensel said. "I was in dance. I was in sports, and that's the one that kind of stuck."

But the camaraderie of being on a team gave way to a personal sense of competition with her own body.

"I mean binging, purging, restricting, over-exercising -- I've done it all," Hensel said. "Most people with eating disorders do. It's not about how they look. It's about the feelings."

Eating disorder specialist Dr. Heather Maio said there's a great deal of misunderstanding about athletes and eating disorders.

"I think (it's) the desire to be successful, to not let their teams down, so they push themselves a lot harder sometimes or they're more restrictive with their diets than what they need to be, then it kicks off something for them," Maio said.

Warning signs of eating disorders in teen athletes include exercising beyond the normal training routine or exercising when they're sick or injured, frequently eating alone and repeatedly expressing concerns about being fat.

"The biggest thing I think that we recommend -- like as a parent or a family member of someone -- is that you are going to the training sessions, you have contact with the coaches and the trainers and that you know what their methodology is so that very early on, you can see the warning signs before it becomes something, or you develop a relationship with a coach that may not actually be supporting the healthiest behaviors," Maio said.

Hensel said she once felt handcuffed by her eating disorders. Today, she no longer feels defined or confined by the disease.

"It's been a journey, but man, is it a good life now that I'm on the other side or the upper end of the bottom," Hensel said.

Research found that athletes involved in ice skating, swimming, gymnastics and wrestling can have the highest risk of developing eating disorders. Parents with children active in those sports should be especially vigilant.