What Should We Know About Eating Disorders Among Athletes

By Ayanna DeVance, reviewed by Lauren Ranley, MS, RD, LDN

Athletes are especially vulnerable to eating disorders and compulsory exercise habits due to the potential link between body image and sports performance. Eating disorders often result in malnutrition and muscle loss, impairing an athlete’s ability to complete an exercise safely and effectively. Understanding the risk associated with weight-centered sports is critical for providing assistance and preventative actions to keep athletes healthy. Education on proper sports nutrition, healthy eating habits, and safe workouts can help to reduce the probability of an eating disorder developing. 

Eating Disorder Risk Factors in Athletes

You are not born with an eating disorder. Biological, psychological, and social/environmental variables are the main determinants of these complex, chemical imbalance, brain-based disorders. 

Individuals participating in sports with a strong emphasis on physique and weight may be at high risk of developing an eating disorder. These sports include bodybuilding, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, diving, dance, figure skating, track and field, running, and swimming. Pressure on players to achieve weight requirements, conform to traditional body types, or have a certain muscle-to-fat ratio can lead to unhealthy eating and exercise patterns that develop into eating disorders.

Extreme perfectionism and competition may result from additional performance pressure from coaches, family, and teammates. When an athlete receives praise for their hard work, weight loss, success, or setting a new record, this encouragement could set off, reinforce, or normalize thoughts and actions associated with eating disorders. 

The high amount of exertion that is frequently demanded by athletes’ sports is another risk factor. Excessive or compulsive exercise can fall into eating disorder territory and lead to health issues like dehydration, accidents, osteoporosis, or low heart rates.

Risk Factors for Eating Disorders in Athletes:
  • Being an elite athlete
  • Coaches who focus primarily on success rather than the athlete’s value as a whole person
  • Low self-esteem
  • Family stress
  • Family history of eating disorders
  • History of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Perfectionism
  • Self-esteem or identity is based only on being an athlete 
Supporting Athletes with Eating Disorders

Prioritize the athlete over the sport. The best treatment for an athlete with an eating disorder requires time and effort. Athletes must devote themselves to the treatment process, which may take precedence over sports performance. 

Some individuals may not want to give up sports or competition, but taking time away from athletics to focus on eating disorder treatment is crucial to heal fully and perform optimally. This may be a complex request for many people, but safety and overall health are more important. Remind the athlete that to perform at their best in future games; they must focus on their health.

Ways to Support Athletes:
  • Instead of a negative coaching style that exclusively focuses on performance, utilize a positive coaching method. 
  • Healthy attitudes toward various body types and sizes 
  • Coaches who emphasize internal attributes like motivation and perseverance and how they contribute to sports performance rather than blaming everything on weight or shape 
  • Coaches and parents who discuss the natural changes that occur in a female body that can affect weight and shape
Putting the Value of the Person Before the Performance

Receiving affirmation related to performance leads athletes to believe that performance is more important than the individual. Athletes frequently have mental health issues, including stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, and others. 

It can be challenging when athletes are expected to perform at their absolute best, earn high scores, avoid mistakes, spend much time away from their loved ones, or even secure sponsorships. Athletes may experience a sense of failure if they believe their performance—on or off the field—is inadequate.  Feelings of failure or inadequacy can lead to unhealthy behaviors surrounding food and exercise. Suppose an individual previously received praise for weight loss or dedication to working out multiple times a day. In that case, they may take extreme measures to meet unrealistic goals to compensate for a perceived failure. Perfection is not achievable. No matter what the results show at the end, support the athlete regardless of their results.

Obstacles that Athletes May Face When Getting Help

Even though eating disorders are severe mental illnesses, it may be difficult for someone to want to get help. This may also be true for athletes who believe that engaging in disordered behaviors is critical to their performance because previous results have provided them with success. 

People suffering from eating disorders typically dismiss the signs at first. When someone acknowledges having a problem, they are at their most vulnerable, and seeking treatment is the first step toward becoming a better version of themselves.

Athletes are frequently presented as tough and strong, leaving little opportunity for vulnerability. As a result, athletes may get advice from coaches, trainers, or teammates to “toughen up,” not cry, or display emotion on the field. Whether they succeed or fail, athletes should be allowed to feel what they feel. Keep in mind that maintaining good mental and physical health is equally vital.

For help approaching someone you believe suffers from an eating disorder, check out this blog, “How to Approach Someone Who Has an Eating Disorder.”