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Athletes and Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a major problem and athletes aren't immune to them. Here's how athletes are dealing and coping with these disorders.

Exercise and participation in sports are incredibly positive and important for so many reasons. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), “Girls and women reap significant benefits from sport participation that are both immediate and long-term.” In spite of the vast array of positives, there can be a fine line for a number of women and girls who take the ‘drive to excel’ to another level in terms of their eating regimen. Where, how and why does a tipping point occur for some female athletes? There are many reasons, and the issue is not straightforward.


Athletes often use sports as an outlet for stress relief and self motivation. They also tend to invest physical and mental energy into their sport, which is a positive. However, this drive to succeed, as well as other associated pressures, can lead to self-doubt and self-esteem issues.

As we all know, coaches, parents, teammates and fans tend to focus upon and critique athletes’ performances, particularly as they get older and the stakes get higher (depending on how competitive the sport/level are). The pressure from this attention, as well as an athlete’s own desire to succeed, can contribute to the development of unhealthy habits, and / or eating disorders.

In a study of Division 1 athletes, the NCAA reported that over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa. While eating disorders are more common in female athletes, male athletes who compete in sports such as wrestling and bodybuilding are considered to be in a higher risk category, due to weight restrictions.

For women and girls, sports such as gymnastics, competitive cheerleading, running, diving, and bodybuilding often have weight requirements and can carry physical appearance pressures, more than other sports.  Other sports, such as track and field, figure skating, and dance rely upon individual performance, which can lead to pressure and an unhealthy concern with weight.

A disorder can be triggered due to a lack of self esteem, as well as the extreme pressure athletes place upon themselves. Many athletes will begin restricting themselves from eating in order to maintain or meet a certain weight, and/or look a certain way. 

Celebrated runner Mary Cain is an example of dietary restriction occurring as a result of coaches’ mandates. She publicly alleged that her coaches setting unrealistically low weight goals, along with aggressive training, caused her to suffer from RED-s (loss of menses) for three years, as well as five bone fractures.

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Eating disorders can also be passed down genetically. Genetic traits such as obsessive thinking, emotional instability, hypersensitivity, and perfectionistic tendencies are traits that are often believed to exist prior to and contribute to the development of eating disorders. (Added) Individuals who suffer from eating disorders tend to develop extreme eating behaviors and focus most of their energy and attention on their weight and food intake, due to their thoughts and emotions. The three main types are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder

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Today’s media-saturated society also adds more pressures with unrealistic standards of strength, size and beauty. Many athletes admire professional athletes and models whose bodies are displayed on billboards, televisions, movies, and magazines. Through the use of photo editing and retouching, unrealistic body types and images are portrayed in the media. 

Andrea Walkonen is an elite runner and former three-time All American in Cross Country and Indoor and Outdoor Track who struggled with an eating disorder during her athletic career. Andrea spoke out about her recovery in a blog post “I Was a Competitive Athlete with an Eating Disorder. Here’s What I Did About It.” Offering advice from her personal struggles, Andrea says, “I asked for help, and I accepted it when it was offered to me. Even if you don’t think you need it, keep an open mind. Know that there are people out there who care very much about you, want you to be well and want you to succeed.”

According to the NEDA website, women with eating disorders “have linked exposure to the thin ideal in mass media to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and disordered eating.” And in men, “pressure from mass media to be muscular also appears to be related to body dissatisfaction”

Although eating disorders can be extremely serious and detrimental to an athlete’s health, they are treatable. It is important to educate athletes and their peers about warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Addressing an eating disorder in its early stages is a key part in preventing further and more serious psychological and health consequences. Everyone’s recovery process plays out differently but with support and proper treatment plans, full recovery is possible.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers online screening tools, blogs, advice columns, and helplines for anyone who may be struggling with eating disorders.

For any athletes seeking help or guidance you can visit:

To reach the NEDA Helpline call (800) 931-2237 or text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.

For coaches seeking guidance in preventing eating disorders in athletes, you can visit:

In competitive sports, athletes are aware of all the eyes watching and critiquing their performance.

Photo CreditUnsplash, Pixabay