The Pressure to Compete: Can College Life Cause Eating Disorders?

By Chelsea Fielder-Jenks, M.A. |

4782217885_4e5854dca3While the transition to college is an exciting time for young adults, full of opportunities for independence and self-discovery, it also comes with an array of stressors. It’s often the first time a young adult lives apart from their primary support system. There is:

  • New-found responsibility
  • The pressure to achieve academically
  • Conflicts with roommates
  • Challenges to build new relationships and find new peer groups
  • Dreaded financial burdens

Due to these simultaneous stressors, the transition to college is a time when many individuals begin to develop disordered eating behaviors, with typical onset between 18 and 21 years of age. In recent years, the rate of eating disorders has risen to 10-20% of college females and 4-10% in college males.

How College Athletes Have an Added Stress

Furthermore, for college athletes, the added pressure to perform and compete can place them at an increased risk for eating disorders. A study of Division 1 National College Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes found that more than one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and behaviors placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa.

Females are not the only athletes affected. Male athletes also engage in risky disordered eating behaviors. In fact, this study found that in weight-class sports (wrestling, rowing, horseracing) and in aesthetic sports (bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming, diving) about 33% of male athletes and 62% of females engage in disordered eating behaviors.

Why College Athletes Are At A Higher Risk for Eating Disorders

  • Research has found that sports tend to emphasize diet, appearance, size and weight; this is added pressure to the already present cultural ideals.
  • Weight-class sports such as wrestling, rowing, swimming, diving, bodybuilding, require athletes to “make weight” or maintain a certain body size to stay competitive.
  • Aesthetic or endurance sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, dance, diving, and track and field, focus on appearance and on the individual rather than the entire team.
  • There are myths that lower body weight will improve performance. However, under-eating can lead the athlete to lose muscle, resulting in impaired performance.

Like others, athletes also have individual psychological and biological factors that create risk for an eating disorder, such as:

  • Perfectionist tendencies
  • Goal-oriented personalities
  • Low self-esteem
  • Negative self-appraisal
  • Dysfunctional interpersonal relationships (a parent who lives vicariously through their child’s athletic success)
  • A genetic history of eating disorders
  • A history of chronic dieting, history of physical or sexual abuse or other traumatic life experiences

Social Influences That Are Specific to Athletes

They may have coaches who focus only on success and performance rather than on the athlete as a whole person. Family and teammates may add to the pressure of athletic ability and performance.

Athletes’ identity may only be built upon their athletic abilities and performance.

This may be especially true in athletes who have trained since childhood or are elite athletes.

Athletes may experience performance anxiety or fear of failure.

In order to improve their performance, athletes may attempt to alter their body composition. This can be a slippery slope, as if there are no gains in performance, athletes may continue or intensify their efforts to lose weight or body fat in hopes of bettering their performance.

Athletes are also at risk of reaching an imbalance between energy input and output that results in weight loss.

This coupled with the other risks can lead to an eating disorder in order to maintain weight loss.

Getting Support Is Imperative

It’s important for athletes to recognize the dangers of disordered eating. Disordered eating behaviors can be detrimental not only to one’s athletic performance but also to one’s overall health and has the potential to develop into a full-blown eating disorder.

Having supportive coaches and teammates who emphasize health regardless of weight, size, and appearance and who focus on the athlete’s motivation and enthusiasm for their sport can protect athletes from developing eating disorders.


Hudson J.I., Hiripi E., Pope H.G., Kessler R.C. (2007). The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry, 61, 348-358.

Johnson, C. Powers, P.S., and Dick, R. (1999). Athletes and Eating Disorders: The National Collegiate Athletic Association Study, International Journal of Eating Disorders, 6, 179.

National Eating Disorders Association. (2014). Learn, Special Issues, Athletes and Eating Disorders. Retrieved from

Vohs, K., Heatherton, T., & Herrin, M. (2001). Disordered eating and the transition to college: A longitudinal study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 29, 280-288.

Chelsea Fielder-JenksChelsea Fielder-Jenks is a designated Expert Writer on Eating Disorder Hope.  Her well researched and thoughtful pieces have been helpful to many of our visitors.  We hope you will read through some of her other interesting pieces: Binge Eating Disorder & AnxietyBulimia in Athletes,  The Pressure to Compete.