Understanding student athlete eating disorders

Students participating in some sports at higher risk for eating disorders

(WPLG)---Most people would consider student athletes among the healthiest young people out there, but in many cases, the opposite is actually true.

Experts said that's because sometimes athletic competition can actually increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Kelsey Hensel said she experienced that firsthand, developing an early passion for softball.

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"I was in all sports when I was a kid, and that's just kind of the one I stuck to," said Hensel. "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-- and control -- over her own body.

"I mean, binging, purging, restricting, overexercising, I've done it all," said Hensel. "Most people that you find with eating disorders have. It's not really about what they do or the way it makes them feel, or about how they look, it's really about the feelings."

Dr. Heather Maio, clinical director of the Renfrew Center of Florida, said there's a great deal of misunderstanding about athletes and eating disorders.

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

Warning signs include exercising beyond the normal training routine or when they are sick or injured, frequently eating alone, and repeatedly expressing concerns about being fat.

"The biggest thing that we recommend as a parent or 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," said Maio. "You can develop a relationship with a coach that may not actually be supporting the healthiest behaviors."

Hensel said she was once handcuffed by her eating disorders, but 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," said Hensel.

Research shows that ice skating, swimming, gymnastics, running, bodybuilding and wrestling can have the highest risk of producing eating disorders.