YOU’RE AT THE FOREFRONT OF A DEADLY ILLNESS.
You think you’re dealing with fitness progress, when in actuality you’re dealing with an eating disorder.
This paradigm is frightening. In most cases, it’s not just the personal trainer who is oblivious to someone suffering with an eating disorder. The sufferer is also in denial.
It’s hard to distinguish if your client is simply dedicated or dealing with a serious medical issue. And chances are if the awareness isn’t there, you might be perpetuating this cycle with the advice and guidance you’re providing your client.
I worked as a personal trainer for 6 years. I dealt with hundreds of clients who would openly discuss the relationship they had with food, alluding to restrictive behaviors and deprivation. At the time, being uneducated on the illness I assumed it wasn’t detrimental and they just set demanding goals for themselves in a pursuit of self-excellence. I didn’t know how to help with an eating disorder.
I was wrong.
I was dealing with cases of
- binge eating disorder
- orthorexia nervosa
on a daily basis. Because I wasn’t aware of their case, I was suggesting things to clients that would increase the severity of their eating disorder and the undying quest for perfectionism.
Using seemingly harmless motivational cues such as ‘Come on, keep going – summer is coming – you need to look good in that bikini’ or ‘The weekend is coming, let’s hit it hard so we can eat anything we want’ only perpetuated this negative downward spiral and brought the client into a toxic state of self-hatred.
It wasn’t until I myself developed the same disordered eating habits did it all make sense. I remember training hard because I was terrified of getting fat, operating from a place of fear rather than exercising for vitality and health. Unintentionally, my trainer at the time didn’t know how to deal with an eating disorder and was planting seeds of insecurity within me, which spun my obsession into a vicious cycle.
When I realized the state I was in I began a three-year personal development journey to repair the relationship I had with food to prevent further damaging my body.
It’s critical that all personal trainers have the necessary education to notice if their clients might be struggling with an eating disorder. Being ignorant to this issue that affects more than 70 million people worldwide could be damaging to your reputation and most importantly, their health.
Here are 5 signs that might indicate your client is struggling with an eating disorder….
I was able to easily identify what the motivations for exercise and weight loss were based on the language patterns my client used. Below is a list of phrases that clients would say, and beside the phrase is the most common disorder in relation to that phrase.
1) “I feel so fat and disgusting” (orthorexia/anorexia)
2) “Why can’t I just eat like a normal person” (binge eating disorder)
3.) “What diet plan will help me lose the fat quickest?” (anorexia/bulimia)
4.) “I just want to look like _____” (anorexia, body dysmorphia)
5.) “I feel like I’m in a constant battle with food – it’s like a drug for me” (binge eating disorder)
6.) “I have to get to my goal weight by Friday – I’m willing to do anything” (anorexia)
7.) “What more can I do at home – I don’t feel like this is enough” (anorexia/bulimia)
These phrases are all fear-based, and their motivation is derived from fear of getting fat. Fear based motivation is using exercise as punishment — being addicted to exercise because gaining a pound would result in self sabotaging behaviors such as purging, restriction, and social isolation.
I dealt with a lot of clients who would wear baggy clothing in the gym to disguise their bodies if they were suffering with anorexia. Once aware, the signs were very obvious and I was able to easily identify the clients who I felt might be suffering.
Be mindful of clients that wear dark colored baggy clothes to every session. For me, this was one of the most obvious signs once I knew what to look for.
Listen carefully to your clients when they talk about how much they exercise, and notice their tone of voice as well as their eye movements. If a client is passionate about fitness and wants to reach their personal fitness goals, they won’t use phrases like ‘I have to go to the gym 6 times this week.’ Instead they’ll make it sound more like a positive choice.
Clients who might be suffering with an eating disorder will phrase working out like a chore. Their energy towards exercise and movement is always built on a foundation of fear.
4. Food Relationships
Food relationships can indicate whether a client might be suffering an eating disorder. It’s vital to be hyper-aware when clients are obsessing over constantly achieving a caloric deficit. The Eating Disorder brain loves to obsess, analyze & ‘figure out’ the complexities of calories in vs. calories out. My clients would micro-analyze every movement throughout the day and every calorie to ensure they were achieving a significant deficit.
A client with a healthy relationship with food will base his behavior around health and hunger: ‘Am I hungry’ and ‘Will this food provide me the fuel I need to thrive’ are a few common phrases. Actions are chosen based on how the body feels, not what the mind thinks.
On the other hand, the mind of a client suffering with an eating disorder is not based on health and hunger; the needs of the body aren’t honored. Instead it obsesses and creates restrictive behaviors based on one goal — to lose more weight.[Tweet “Obsession and restrictive behaviors are representative of eating behaviors.”]
5. The Scale
Does your client constantly talk about their weight and whether they’re up or down that day? Notice their behavior when they come into the gym and leave. If they’re constantly hopping on the scale and discussing the number with you, this is a definite warning sign.
People who struggle with eating disorders are quite often Type A perfectionists, which means if they aren’t satisfied with the number on the scale they will immediately self-sabotage and create even stricter guidelines on themselves.
Check in with them and ask ‘How’s it going today’ and notice if they allude to the number on the scale — if they do, this is a warning sign.
Approaching a client who might be suffering with an eating disorder takes patience, constant observation, and correct communication. Confronting a client who is struggling in the wrong manner will make them combative and withdrawn.
The client-trainer relationship is usually built on a strong foundation. There’s pre-existing trust that naturally allows conversations to flow with more ease, especially with pressing topics
As soon as I created the space for clients to speak up about their struggle, they would, as it was liberating for them to share and seek help. Speak up, you could save someone’s life. The next step is to refer out to get them proper help.
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