In a society where sports culture plays a central role in school communities – specifically high schools – the pressure to perform at the highest levels in athletics pushes students mentally and physically. Not only does participating in a varsity sport merit a positive reaction from peers, but also opens doors to universities, career paths and scholarships otherwise unavailable to many students.

The quest to obtain a sports scholarship requires much dedication in terms of academics as well as athletics, putting a huge strain on one’s health. Lack of sleep, injuries, skipped meals, dieting, high levels of emotional and physical stress are all examples of compromises student athletes often take, and the toll which these actions exhibit on the body often get swept under the rug.

While everyone, regardless of gender or activity level, deals with body image issues – nearly 50% of adolescent girls have dieted at some point in their lives – high intensity athletes are the most at risk for developing unhealthy eating and dieting habits. Sports rely on the abilities of one’s body, and therefore the cause of success and failure is often pinned on a lack of weight, not enough muscle or too much fat. From overeating in order to gain weight, to over-exercising for building muscle or losing fat, to even taking simple juice cleanses, athletes’ bodies must deal with the physical strain of their sport as well as irregular eating habits. Although the end goal of these extreme methods is to improve one’s performance  as an athlete and does not line up with the physiological components of an eating disorder, it is still harmful. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), those who play on team sports tend to have a lower rate of intense performance eating issues than sports involving judging and individual wins such as gymnastics or swimming. Athletes who surround themselves positive influences such as friends and family, as well as seeking out a coach who understands them more wholly, rather than focusing on success, will all help combat the need to take extreme measures with diet and exercise.

Along with conscious decisions to eat less or workout more, the main issue with an athlete’s hectic and dedicated lifestyle is that it’s incredibly easy to forget to eat. Skipping meals due to jam-packed schedules and a constant workload, meals go from a necessary part of the day to something that occurs only when there is time. According to Women’s Health magazine, missing a meal causes the body’s blood sugar to crash, resulting in dizziness, irritability and headaches which would in turn take a toll on the body and brain’s abilities to function. Skipping meals to finish homework or go to practice is so ineffective because the brain is deprived of nutrients to complete the task at hand.

While getting a decent amount of sleep – around eight hours – is difficult for even the average high school student, for athletes who don’t struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating, diet is something easier to manage. Setting aside time to eat, keeping performance eating to a minimum and surrounding oneself with teammates and coaches who understand the level of stress that plagues all student athletes will greatly benefit one’s mental and physical health.

To get more information on disordered eating, visit the National Eating Disorder Association’s website.

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