Eating Disorders in Athletes

Athletes are uniquely vulnerable to disordered eating and exercise behaviors due to the relationship their athletic performance may have with their nutritional intake and training schedule. Understanding the risks athletes face is key to providing preventative support and coaching. This can help to reduce the likelihood of eating disorder development as well as increase the likelihood of early intervention and, therefore, long-term recovery.

Athletes with Eating Disorders Statistics

Due to the increased vulnerability of this population, many studies have been conducted to learn more information about athletes and eating disorders. Through this research, the following has been learned:

  • 13.5% of athletes struggle with an eating disorder [1].
  • Up to 45% of female athletes, and 19% of male athletes, struggle with an eating disorder [2].
  • Among high school students, rates of eating disorders among athletes is higher than non-athletes, with 7.3% of athletes affected and 2.3% of non-athletes impacted [3].
  • 2% of female athletes struggle with anorexia nervosa [4].
  • 6% of female, and 2% of male, athletes will struggle with bulimia nervosa behaviors [4].

College Athletes

What are the Signs of Eating Disorders?

The warning signs of eating disorder behaviors in athletes are difficult to distinguish because they are often glorified regardless of the sport one is competing in. Traits such as fueling the body with “healthy” foods, obsessing over what one consumes, or training long and arduous hours outside of practice are all celebrated but are just a few signs that an athlete is in trouble.

Eating disorders cause dangerous consequences for all individuals, however, this may present differently in athletes. For example, athletes struggling with disorders eating are at higher risk for RED-S, “Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport,” which “occurs when energy expenditure exceeds energy intake, creating an energy deficiency and a resulting compromise in health systems evidenced in one or more of the following: metabolism, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis, cardiovascular health and psychological health [3].”

Below are signs that an individual may be struggling with a specific eating disorder. If your athlete presents with these, regardless of the “culture” of your sport, it is important to ask some questions.

Anorexia Nervosa in Athletes

Anorexia nervosa refers to behaviors of severely restricting food intake. Athletes in aesthetic sports, that is, those that emphasize body appearance, are often seen engaging in these behaviors. Signs of disordered eating and exercising that may point to anorexia nervosa are:

  • Fixation on body weight, shape or size.
  • Calorie counting.
  • Intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Preoccupation on contents and nutritional aspects of food.
  • Declining/skipping meals.
  • Refusing to eat in front of others.
  • Food rules.
  • Distorted body image.
  • Participation in an aesthetic sport (dance, gymnastics, figure skating, wrestling, equestrianism).
  • Unusual food behaviors.
  • Reported lethargy, difficulty with stamina.
  • Impaired concentration.

Bulimia in Athletes

Bulimia nervosa involves individuals engaging in binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as purging, fasting, or excessive exercise. As noted above, this disorder is more common in athletes than anorexia nervosa as they require increased nourishment to fuel their activities yet may continue to struggle with appearance or weight due to sport requirements as well. The following may signify an athlete is engaging in bulimic behaviors:

  • Binge eating behaviors after practice, interrupted or followed by trips to the bathroom.
  • Eating in secret.
  • Hiding food.
  • Preoccupation with body weight/shape/size.
  • Distorted body image.
  • Eating beyond fullness.
  • Expressing shame or guilt around eating.
  • Possessing/purchasing diuretics and/laxatives.
  • Excessive coffee drinking/fluid consumption.
  • Scarring on the knuckles.

Binge Eating in Athletes

Finally, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) in athletes is common, particularly if they are engaging in restrictive behaviors or simply not nourishing their bodies properly in accordance with their energy output. Be aware of the following signs of binge eating:

  • Eating in secret.
  • Hiding food.
  • Expressing shame/guilt around food and/or eating.
  • Eating at a fast pace.
  • Reported feelings of depression or low self-worth.
  • Nourishment in public is observed to be inappropriate with the amount of energy output.
  • Weight fluctuations.
  • Lethargy.

Long-Term Effects of Eating Disorders on Athletes

The long-term impact of eating disorder behaviors on an athlete can be severe, as their energy output requires proper nourishment and optimal body functioning, both of which are impaired by an eating disorder.

The negative impacts of eating disorder behaviors on the female athlete are so common that treatment professionals refer to them as “Female Athlete Triad” syndrome, which specifies three consequences as “menstrual dysfunction, low energy availability, and reduced bone mineral density [1]. Approximately 4.3% of female athletes struggle with this syndrome [1].

The following consequences can occur long-term if an athlete is not treated for disordered eating behaviors:

  • Metabolic imbalances.
  • Increased risk of athletic injury.
  • Poor sports performance.
  • Inability to perform sports requirements resulting in quitting/retirement.
  • Decreased training response.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Decreased coordination.
  • Impaired aerobic functioning.
  • Damage to vital organs.
  • Loss of menstrual cycle/infertility issues.
  • Increased risk of heart failure and cardiovascular complications.
  • Bone and muscle loss.
  • Ulcers.
  • Gastrointestinal complications.
  • Tooth decay/gum disease/tooth loss.
  • Increased depression/anxiety.
  • Increased risk of substance abuse.
  • Increased suicidal thoughts.
  • Death.

Hurdles for HS athletes

Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders do not have one distinct cause, as numerous biological, psychological, and social factors contribute to their development. Athletes do experience unique vulnerability factors that make them more likely to engage in disordered eating or exercising behaviors due to the requirements of their sport and the pressure to perform.

There are sports more likely to cause disordered eating and exercise behaviors, particularly those in which appearance is emphasized. For women, the 3 athletic activities that place them most at-risk for disordered eating are gymnastics, dancing, and figure skating. For men, these activities are wrestling, equestrianism, and body-building. The pressure in these sports to not only perform but appear a certain way increases the chance of eating disorder development.

The culture of sports alone can also make an athlete more susceptible to distorted body image and disordered eating beliefs. One study detailed the following sports-culture risk factors that may contribute to disordered eating: “endurance, weight category…the revealing nature of much sports clothing, the intense competitiveness of sports participants which can extend to ‘competitive thinness’, specialising in one sport at an early age and sudden increases in training volume [4].”

These factors and the pressure to perform successfully, and often achieve a certain appearance while doing so, make athletes more at-risk to have distorted body beliefs and engage in disordered eating and exercise behaviors.

Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders

Treating athletes with eating disorders is not very different from treating non-athletes. In fact, the evidence-based treatments recommended such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Family Based Treatment are still advised for athletes.

The most important aspect in supporting athletes struggling with disordered eating and exercise behaviors is to prioritize the athlete over the sport. Treatment takes time and commitment to be effective and an athlete cannot commit both to their sport and their recovery at the same time.

It will likely be necessary for the athlete to take some time off to solely focus on treatment and eating disorder recovery. While this can be difficult for the athlete, doing this increases their likelihood of being able to safely return to the sport they are passionate about.

Prioritize your athlete over the game, competition, or event by encouraging them to play the long game for their health, body, and future.

Resources:

[1] Ghoch, M. E., et al. (2013). Eating disorders, physical fitness, and sport performance: a systematic review. Nutrients, 5:12.
[2] Conviser, J. H., Schlitzer Tierney, A., Nickols, R. (2018). Essential for best practice: treatment approaches for athletes with eating disorders. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 12.
[3] Conviser, J. H., Schlitzer Tierney, A., Nickols, R. (2018). Assessment of Athletes with eating disorders: essentials for best practice. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 12.
[4] Currie, A. (2010). Sports and eating disorders – understanding and managing the risks.Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 1:2.

Author: Margot Rittenhouse, MS, NCC
Page Last Reviewed and Updated By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 16, 2021