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When Kit Zeigle's cross country coach saw her in the hospital, he wondered how this could have happened.
"It was a real shock to me to see that someone this young could go through something this severe," coach Jeff Arbogast said.
According to a 1995 study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 12 percent of high school seniors (male and female) have anorexia or bulimia. ANAD figures also say 7 million women and 1 million men suffer from these disorders.
The first step may be a decision to cut candy out of a diet. Next, it may be meat. For athletes, extra time spent exercising can be explained away as a dedication to success in their sport.
"It's a slippery slope," Elizabeth Joye, an associate professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah, said. "Often, [a girl] doesn't think there's anything wrong. She thinks, 'So I don't eat the same things that everybody else eats, what's wrong with that?' "
The problems arise when such behavior becomes an obsession.
"People tell us all the time that they spend 90 to 100 percent of their day thinking about weight, body image or exercise," Joye said. Once the disorder gets to that point, it causes a hormonal imbalance that can stop a girl from menstruating. This hormonal imbalance interferes with calcium levels in the body, and the combination of a lack of food and abnormally low calcium levels can lead to weakened bones and put an athlete at risk during competition.
Athletes, Joye said, are at greater risk for an eating disorder. Different sports can influence an eating disorder in different ways: a cross country runner may want zero-percent body fat, and a swimmer may just want to look good in a bathing suit. Female gymnasts, cross country runners and swimmers have eating disorders more commonly, and for males, disorders develop most often among wrestlers.
But athlete or not, Joye said the only common theme is how someone with an eating disorder uses it to control their environment.
"The thinner they get, the more they feel their power and their self-control is working for them," Joye said. They think, " 'I am controlling my body image, I am controlling my body weight.' For anorexics, that's a big component."
Some kinds of personalities are more susceptible. Arbogast, who as a coach has dealt with situations as serious as Zeigle's at Bingham High School before, said problems generally arise in the most successful athletes.
"These are extremely motivated girls," Arbogast said. "You don't see the girls that are very lax doing this. Usually, they are girls that are driven, and that are goal-oriented."
While cases as serious as Zeigle's are less common, Arbogast said he deals with one or two cases of disordered eating every year.
"It's certainly an issue, and it never goes away," Arbogast said. His primary role in helping athletes work through the disorder, he said, is in educating, monitoring and communicating with professionals who are trained in the treatment of the disorder.
"What we'll try to do is tailor intensity and workouts around the goals that doctors and psychologists try to develop," Arbogast said. Once a serious situation arises, he said, "What you've bought into as a coach is a responsibility to maintain that communication [with the doctors]."
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