Eating Disorders in Athletes
College and professional athletics are fantastic ways to compete, master teamwork and leadership, and stay in shape – but an athlete’s life isn’t always gold.
Due to the demands of college sports, collegiate student-athletes may be particularly vulnerable to disordered eating disorders and compulsive exercise. According to the National Library of Medicine, 84% of collegiate athletes engage in unhealthy eating and weight control behaviors, such as binge eating, excessive exercise, strict dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, and supplemental weight loss.
Athletes are trained from day one that they must be tough – mentally and physically. This is why many athletes slip through the cracks of diagnosis: their bodies may be muscular, but their gut notices a difference. Being an athlete is no easy feat; if it were, everyone would do it. You have to have grit, confidence, and determination – but sometimes that determination can blur the lines of health. The pressure of competing at such a rigorous level is, without a doubt, intense. Morning weight training sessions, afternoon film analysis, mid-day practice – whatever the training routine, boundaries will be pushed.
Those findings are more conclusive for “lean” sports, in which a slim or light body provides an advantage over other body types.
- • Gymnastics, diving, bodybuilding, and wrestling are all sports that emphasize appearance, weight requirement, or muscularity.
- • Sports that emphasize individual performance rather than team play (e.g. gymnastics, running, skating, dancing, diving).
- • Sports that require endurance, such as track and field, running, and swimming.
Athletes and Eating Disorder Statistics
Athletes and eating disorders have been the subject of many studies due to their vulnerability. This research revealed the following:
- • Up to 45% of female athletes, and 19% of male athletes, struggle with an eating disorder .
- • 2% of female athletes struggle with anorexia nervosa .
- • 6% of female, and 2% of male athletes will struggle with bulimia nervosa behaviors .
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The Eating Disorders Most Often Diagnosed in Athletes:
- Anorexia nervosa: deliberate caloric intake restriction, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of body image.
- Bulimia nervosa: weight gain due to binge eating, unhealthy compensatory behaviors (like excessive exercise and induced vomiting), and undue weight and shape perception.
- Binge-eating disorder: frequently consuming substantial amounts of food in one sitting and feeling that eating behavior is out of control.
Why Athletes Are At Risk:
- Widespread Presence: The pressure to fit the standard body type for each unique sport is prevalent. Whether it’s real or perceived, coaches, teammates, and other mentors can contribute to a significant rise in eating disorders in athletes. Even though athletes may physically appear healthy, that doesn’t make them any less vulnerable to an eating disorder. Most athletes who compete in sports like bodybuilding, gymnastics, figure skating, wrestling, rowing, and horse racing are at a higher risk because these sports tend to focus on diet, appearance, size, weight, and aesthetics the most. Additionally, revealing uniforms, used for both men and women, and a presumption of good health based on sports performance can ignite the beginning stages of these conditions. As a result, certain athletes may be at an increased risk for disordered eating behaviors.
- Genetics: Genetic factors may explain some of the predispositions to developing eating disorders and their occurrence in families. As much as 40-60% of the risk of developing an eating disorder is due to genetic factors. Genetic predisposition is not the only cause of the illness, as other factors also play a role.
- Environmental Factors: Various environmental factors such as media, culture, brain injury, events and influences, trauma, and parents also play a significant causal role. It is common for individuals to be subjected to societal or cultural pressures related to weight or appearance. Still, not all will develop an eating disorder. Females are more likely to suffer from this disorder, and its onset often occurs during adolescence.
- Electrolyte imbalances, irregular heartbeats, and heart failure if purging behaviors are present
- Premature osteoporosis
- Peptic ulcers, pancreatitis, and gastric rupture
Physical Signs and Symptoms:
- Constipation and abdominal pain
- Intolerance of cold
- Stress fractures (and overuse injuries)
- Absence of menstruation
- Significant weight loss
- Muscle cramps, weakness, or fatigue
- Dental and gum problems
Behavioral Signs and Symptoms:
- Anxiety and depression
- Claims of “feeling fat” despite being thin
- Excessive exercise
- Excessive use of the restroom
- Difficulty concentrating
- Preoccupation with weight and eating
- Avoidance of eating and eating situations
- Use of laxatives and diet pills
How Family and Friends Can Help
- Encourage athletes to focus on healthy ways to improve their performance. In addition to developing their physical strength and mentality, you should try to provide adequate training methods.
- It is vital to ensure that their coaches are positive influences and don’t make negative comments about weight. Choose coaches who emphasize motivation, not body shape and size. They should also be alert to the warning signs of eating disorders.
- Pay attention to social influences and teammates. Make sure they promote a positive view of weight, diet, and self-image.
- Encourage health and fitness instead of frequent weigh-ins.
- Watch out for symptoms of eating disorders. These include abnormal or obsessive behaviors about food or exercise.
- Immediately seek mental health treatment if an athlete shows warning signs of eating disorders.
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Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders
Athletes have different nutritional needs than the general population. Athletes need to “fuel” before, during and after practices and competition in a way that helps the body prepare, perform and recover from high intensity activity. Athletes who perform at the elite, high school, college or professional levels approach food differently—and can abuse food differently as well.
When supporting athletes struggling with disordered eating or exercise behaviors, the athlete must be prioritized over the sport, since treatment can only be effective with time and commitment, and athletes cannot simultaneously focus on their sport and their recovery. While taking time off to focus solely on treatment and eating disorder recovery may be difficult, doing so increases an athlete’s chances of being able to safely return to their sport.
If you or a loved one seems to be struggling with eating habits or weight, starting the treatment process early is key. In order to get you back into a healthy mindset and body, our team is trained to handle topics such as identity, performance anxiety, mindfulness, the culture of sports, post-career transition and more. Call today at 855-808-4213. Together, we will work to find the best direction for you — a direction that will help you recover the life you deserve and get you back into the game.
 Conviser, J. H., Schlitzer Tierney, A., Nickols, R. (2018). Essential for best practice: treatment approaches for athletes with eating disorders. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 12.
 Currie, A. (2010). Sports and eating disorders – understanding and managing the risks.Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 1:2.