There are diets and healthy eating regimens and then there are eating disorders. The two are very different from each other and both are common amongst adolescent adults, particularly females. As a teammate and friend, know the differences between the two and what to do if you believe someone may have an eating disorder.

What defines a diet?
Before you can identify unhealthy eating, you have to know the differences between a diet and an eating disorder. Many athletes, even in high school, are on a diet. A diet doesn't always mean the goal is to lose weight; a diet can also refer to an eating regimen. For example, a diet can be eating lean proteins and cutting out sweets or greasy foods. In school, this is the only type of diet an athlete should be on. A cheerleader's goal shouldn't be losing weight just to become skinner; the goal is to be healthy and fit. Remember, muscle is weight and cheerleaders need muscles to perform safely and powerfully!

What's an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is harmful to one's body. An eating disorder can either involve eating too little or eating too much. The entire goal of an eating disorder isn't necessarily to become skinny (although that is common, especially among adolescents). Someone may fall prey to an eating disorder because of stress or because she isn't feeling in control of her life. The two common forms of eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia.

Anorexia can be easier to identify than bulimia. Anorexia is when someone eats little to no food; it is essentially starvation. Bulimia is when someone self-induces vomiting or takes laxatives. They may be eating a normal amount of food around friends and family but then purge when in the bathroom alone. Those with eating disorders also often exercise frequently and constantly worry about their weight.

How else can I identify an eating disorder?
If you don't always eat with a friend or see what she does after lunch, it's hard to notice someone's eating habits. When someone is suffering from an eating disorder, he/she may lie to cover it up. At lunch she may tell you that she already ate, that she had a big breakfast, or that she's feeling sick and doesn't want to eat. Or, if she has bulimia, she may eat a healthy portion but go to the restroom to purge once you've left.

There are other ways to know if your friend is in need of help. First, as mentioned before, eating disorders are often brought on by stress or lack of control. If a friend seems overly stressed, upset, or emotional, talk with him/her. While it's not an automatic sign of an eating disorder, he/she could be having a lot of trouble in general and needs someone to talk to.

Another sign is significant weight loss, hair loss, and a thinner face. If her clothes seem suddenly baggy or she's much lighter to lift at practice, she may have an eating disorder.

How do I handle a situation like this?
First of all, never jump to conclusions. Weight loss or stress isn't an automatic sign of an eating disorder. First of all, athletes so hard and so often that they can easily forget to take the time to eat a whole meal. (However, if this is the case, a parent or coach may still want to talk to her about nutrition, as a healthy weight is crucial as an athlete). Second of all, cheerleaders in general face a lot of stress and everyone handles it differently.

If you do believe your friend has an eating disorder, don't ignore it or assume it's not a big deal. Whether he/she realizes or not, an eating disorder is a cry for help and is seriously dangerous. People can ruin their bodies and even die from eating disorders. You can save her life by getting help.

When you help her, don't bombard her with criticism or angry tirades about how bad an eating disorder is. She probably knows that already and even if she doesn't, she won't respond positively to negativity. You should first reach out to a coach or parent (either your parents or the friend's parents). You should always get an adult involved. The friend's parents deserve to know what's going on so they can help. Depending on the extent or severity of the eating disorder, she may have to seek treatment, see a doctor, or take time off from school.

If you decide to approach your friend with the coach and/or parents, keep the atmosphere comforting and safe. Your friend is going through something very tough and needs to feel loved by her friends and family. An intervention only works when the person feels safe.

Remember...
  • There is a big different between a diet and an eating disorder

  • A cheerleader's focus should always be on health, not weight. Everyone's body is different!

  • Eating disorders are serious and should never be taken lightly.

  • Eating disorders aren't always about losing weight.

  • Never assume someone has an eating disorder.

  • Always get help for a friend who is suffering from an eating disorder.

  • Focus on helping a friend, not criticizing or lecturing her.

  • Males are also victims of eating disorders and shouldn't be overlooked.


For more information about eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.