Male Athletes and Prevalence of Binge Eating Disorder

adidas Soccer ball

Approximately 1 in 4 men struggles with an eating disorder within the United States, and males tend to struggle with body image disturbance at similar rates as females.  Yet, many males go without treatment due to the continued stigma around eating disorders in men.

Increased Risk Among Male Athletes

Male athletes can heave various reasons for binge eating disorder. Reasons such as fear of weight gain, to pressure to drop weight, or restriction from foods due to sport requirements or training, and perceived sport performance [1, 7].

Males tend to be more focused on physical look, building muscle, than on smaller frames and ultra-thinness, typically seen in females. Binge Eating is correlated with comorbidities such as bipolar and depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and to a lesser degree substance use. BED is also related to medical risks such as metabolic and cardiovascular disease [1].

Binge Eating Disorder Signs and Symptoms

Men athletes that struggle with binge eating disorder can show several symptoms. When male athletes binge eat, it is typically followed by extreme food restriction and/or fasting, coupled with exercise for sport and often over exercise outside of the sport.

Binge eating typically follows when there is a period of rigid dieting behaviors and the body is craving foods with high carbohydrate and fat content to ‘fill’ the body with nourishment as it believes that the body is starving. Often male athletes are asked to gain weight and overeat to ‘bulk up’ for their sport. In addictive behaviors, early exposure and habit formation during the brains developing years {prior to age 25}, are highly indicative of continued problems later in life.

As found in brains that abuse drugs, research indicates food high in sugars and fat also cause lare increases in dopamine, serotonin, and possibly the most important for those who struggle with food addictions, opioids and endorphin increases [2].

Because the brain’s hardwired limbic system circuitry and naturally reinforcing biochemical mechanisms of eating, there are many physical and psychological factors that influence eating behaviors. These psychological factors can include stress, depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and self-efficacy, and a preoccupation with food, weight, and body shape [2].

How Does the Brain Respond to Food?

In a study of non-obese healthy subjects who had fasted overnight to include breakfast, were asked to view pictures of high calorie versus low calorie foods. Those individuals viewing the high calorie foods demonstrated increased neural activity in reward-related areas such as the orbitofrontal cortex, ventral striatum, amygdala, and anterior insula, meaning that these foods were linked with subjects ‘liking’ the foods [1].

Surfer riding wavesIn a separate study, obese and lean individuals with BED compared with those who did not have BED, fasted overnight and were then asked to view pictures of high calorie food. Both obese and lean individuals with BED showed stronger orbital frontal cortex (OFC) responses and enhanced reward sensitivity while viewing food pictures compared to their non-BED peers.

This means that those who have increased reward areas in the brain when viewing photos, show that these people are more hyper sensitive to the motivational and rewarding properties of food. Also in brain studies, larger brain activation differences in the amygdala and ventral striatum have been found in individuals with BED as well [1].

In 2007 a study was conducted by Harvard on males with eating disorders, where 40% were found to have Binge Eating disorder [3]. An earlier study in 1999, conducted by NCAA, found that male athletes were more likely than female athletes to overeat on a daily basis [3]. Research also links make binge eating with low self-esteem, physical competitiveness, and sexual attractiveness as well as obesity [3].

Male athletes with binge eating tend to eat a large amount of food in a short period of time (typically in 2 hours or less); tend to keep eating even past point of being satisfied or full; eat very quickly or rapidly; hide food or eat alone; state feeling out of control when eating; eating or binging at various points during day or night; feelings of guilt, shame, or disgust after binging [6, 7].

The prevalence of binge eating disorder in males show that men tend to binge eat to be in more control than perceived; have difficulty expressing feelings and possibly to numb emotions they cannot control [6]. Men are more likely to not seek treatment due to increased stigmas. Male athletes tend to be focused around body image concerns, and images of athletes in peak physical fitness and muscularity [5].

Man with kiteIn a study done on pro athletes, which looked at the average body size of players in various sports compared to international male body size and shapes. Due to different sports, athletes need various abilities and body strengths.

NBA players in the noted study, had the highest average height of any of the sports analyzed, averaging at 79.2 inches, 5 inches higher than NFL players. NFL players had the greatest average weight at 246.9lbs, nearly 25lbs more than the average NBA player [5]. The average non-athletic make has a BMI of 26.66 and weighs on average 181.0lbs in muscle in comparison to body types in the NFL and NBA [5].

Joey Julius a football player for Penn State, reported this past year, publically that he struggled for the past 11 years with an eating disorder. He stated on his social profile that he admitted to McCallum Place for several months to work on his eating disorder and comorbid issues. He came forward admitting to Binge Eating Disorder coupled with purging and extreme anxiety [4].

A study in 2014 proposed a ‘diet and stress’ model to BED, which stated that cycles of food restriction and refeeding with enjoyable foods, coupled with environmental, physiological and/or psychological stressors, represented a form of stress eating.

These triggered cycles can lead to neurobiological changes that can lead to addictive behavior [1]. This study shows that athletes who are under significant stress due to strenuous practices, exercise and/or physical training, with calorie restriction, competition pressures, lack of down time, financial, work, or school pressures can increase this diet and stress cycle of eating.

In conclusion experts agree that male eating disorders are uniquely stigmatized and underrepresented in society. A study published by the American Medical Association Pediatrics revealed that men suffer from body image issues and eating disorders at similarly rates to females. Almost 20% of teen boys who participated in the study expressed concerns about their weight and physical appearance [4].

Men Athletes and Prevalence of Binge Eating Disorders shows over various studies and reports that male athletes do engage in binge eating. Men athletes can and do have Binge Eating Disorder at higher rates than previously believed. Often for somewhat varying reasons than female counterparts, but primarily for numbing feelings, to feel in control and to cope with pressures of sport and life pressures.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons, MSW, LCSW, CEDS is a specialist in the eating disorder field. Libby has been treating eating disorders for 10 years within the St. Louis area, and enjoys working with individuals of all ages.



The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 25, 2017.
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