Eating Disorders More Prevalent in College Athletes

Athlete running

With the 2014 Winter Olympics embarking in the next month, many inspirational stories of athletes and their journeys are circulating within the media.  Olympians are often highly regarded for their athleticism, stamina, and unparalleled dedication to their training and sport.  

In the celebration of these events and competition, the deeper stories of these athletes are often overlooked; the pain and sacrifice required for them to reach their goals is not always recognized.

Eating Disoders Higher in Athletes than the Average Person

Athletes, whether it is on the Olympic level or a high school sport, are more inclined to developing eating disorders.  A study on college athletes by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) found that men and women athletes may be two to three times more likely to have an eating disorder than the average person [1]. 

Similar research on elite athletes found that 13.5% of athletes surveyed had an eating disorder, compared with 4.6% of the control group [2].  Because of the intense pressures athletes often face in their careers, admitting an eating disorder and seeking help needed to overcome it can be even more difficult to do. 

With athletes prone to over-exercising in combination with the pursuit of perfectionism, sports and athleticism can be the breeding ground for the development of an eating disorder and co-occurring issues such as anxiety and depression.

Unnoticed Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can often be overlooked in athletes or dismissed as part of their rigorous training schedules.  However, it is important to be aware of these red flags, which may indicate an eating disorder is present or developing:

  • Preoccupation with food or weight
  • Continuing to train or exercise rigorously when sick or injured
  • Avoiding interaction with others to exercise or eat alone
  • Exercising beyond a normal training regimen
  • Increase concern or criticism of one’s body
  • Use of laxatives or diet pills
  • Frequently using the bathroom during or following meals
  • Expressed concern about being or “feeling” fat

Healthy Habits Reinforced by Mentors

Coaches, trainers, and parents can play a tremendous role in their athletes’ lives.  Being aware of eating disorder symptoms, reinforcing healthy nutrition and exercise habits, and promoting positive body talk can be instrumental in preventing eating disorder development.

The Olympics are a tremendous time of celebration among the countries of our world, and they also serve a reminder of the journeys that are behind the athletes participating in these games.  Understanding the risk factors that athletes may be exposed to, whether from a high school sport or at the collegiate levels and beyond, can play an important role in the prevention of eating disorders for this extraordinary group of individuals.


[1]:  NCAA Sport Science Institute

[2]: American College of Sports Medicine. Current Comment: Eating Disorders. Indianapolis, IN: Fall 1996

Blog contributed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, President @ Eating Disorder Hope and Crystal Karges, MS, RD, Special Projects Director @ Eating Disorder  Hope.

*Image courtesy of Stockimages at

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Eating Disorder Hope in 2005, driven by a profound desire to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. This passion resulted from her battle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder. As president, Jacquelyn manages Ekern Enterprises, Inc. and the Eating Disorder Hope website.