Athletes are often lauded for their strength, talent and dedication. They’re often put on a pedestal, and while they should be applauded for their hard work and skill, admiration of athleticism can sometimes go too far.
Too often, sports can lead people to place too much focus on body image and physical ability, leading to the development of a negative relationship with food and eating disorders. Here, we’ll look at some of the most common eating disorders in athletes, how they develop and what to do about it.
Athletes with eating disorders statistics
Athletes are among the most vulnerable groups at risk for the development of an eating disorder. The European Journal of Sport Science estimates that between zero and 19 percent of male athletes and between six and 45 percent of female athletes are affected by an eating disorder. For both men and women, this is much higher than the national average of people with eating disorders, which is right around nine percent according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
These may be conservative estimates, too. The Sports Journal states that up to 84 percent of collegiate athletes responded to a survey reporting they had engaged in maladaptive behaviors in regards to managing weight and eating, such as excessive exercising, fasting, vomiting, binge eating and using weight control supplements.
There are many elite athletes that feel an overwhelming pressure to take extreme measures to control weight and body image, too. Eating disorders in Olympic athletes are common. An essay out of Columbia University states that sports that requires a lean physique, such as gymnastics, figure skating and running, are more likely to produce eating disorders in athletes.
Professional athletes face pervasive pressure to embody strength, discipline and dedication. While these traits can be positive influences in their performance, they can also lead to mental health concerns and an unhealthy relationship with food.
There is a need for more research around athletes with eating disorders, but one thing is clear— the statistics are staggering. It’s not uncommon to see eating disorders in Olympic athletes, professional athletes, collegiate athletes and even high school athletes. Whichever way you look at it, participating in sports on an armature or professional level increases your risk of developing an eating disorder.
Common eating disorders in athletes
There are numerous eating disorders listed in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Here, we’ll list those that are most common among athletic competitors.
- Anorexia nervosa, or consciously eating as little food as possible while obsessing over weight and body image;
- Bulimia nervosa, which includes both binging and purging behaviors as well as binging followed by excessive exercise;
- Binge eating disorder, which is characterized by eating large amounts of food to the point of feeling uncomfortably full followed by feelings of guilt, shame or disgust;
- Female athlete triad syndrome, while not listed in the DSM, this is when women consume many calories, but due to extreme exercise, caloric intake is insufficient to sustain an active lifestyle.
These are the most common eating disorders in athletes, but athletes often struggle with disorders not listed here. Eating disorders of all kinds must be taken seriously, and this is especially true in the case of athletes who push their bodies to the limit during training.
Traits that can contribute to eating disorders
In order to succeed in athletic competition, an individual has to have a strong work ethic and self-discipline. While these are positive traits, this intensity can also cause undue stress. Constantly focusing on being the best and working harder each day can make a person’s life feel unbalanced and have a ripple effect that leads to a host of issues.
This internal pressure is often coupled with external pressure from coaches, teammates, parents and friends. Moreover, certain sports can add extra pressure, too. Competitions that require a lean physique, a muscular build or a specific body image (such as wrestling, ballet, beach volleyball, diving and so on) can be a risk factor for the development of an eating disorder.
Sports that are scored by judges are also more likely to produce eating disorders in athletes. Appearance, form, stature and posture are often scored, placing even greater emphasis on a person’s body. The desire to look skinny in a uniform required by a sport can also lead to disordered eating behaviors.
Risk behaviors for eating disorders and athletes
As an athlete, what you might consider a one-time behavior to help you win can soon become a habit. It’s possible that coaches and teammates might normalize or even encourage this type of behavior. Here are some examples of behaviors that could spiral into an eating disorder.
- A wrestler fasting once to rapidly lose weight before a weigh-in may continue to do so or use other additional dangerous weight-loss techniques after he reaches his goal;
- A ballerina might eat as little as possible throughout the day after her instructor made a comment about not looking good in her costume;
- A cyclist may eat excess amounts of food with the intention of gaining energy before a large race, but she may find it difficult to stop after getting into the habit of binging.
That being said, coaches and teammates can also be a source of positivity to relieve the pressure from high-performing athletes. It’s key for athletes to surround themselves with supporters who maintain a healthy attitude towards body image. Having coaches, teammates, and family members who value the whole person – not just athletic ability – can also go a long way towards the prevention of an eating disorder.
Sadly, eating disorders in athletes are a prevalent issue. If you or someone you know is showing signs of disordered eating, it’s time to reach out for help. Full recovery from an eating disorder is within reach.
Seeds of Hope can help. With compassionate professionals who specialize in the treatment of eating disorders, you’ll know you’re in good hands. Call Seeds of Hope today.