Athletes and Eating Disorders

Connection Between Sports, Body Image, and a Healthy Relationship

The various demands made on athletes’ bodies can result in the development or exacerbation of an eating disorder. A study of 425 female athletes from 7 United States universities found that more than one-third demonstrated at-risk behaviors based on their answers to the Eating Disorders Inventory (EDI-BD). Sports like dancing, synchronized swimming, figure skating and gymnastics place a high emphasis on strict weight control, which can promote an unhealthy attitude toward thinness and nutrition.

Male athletes are also at risk, however. This is especially true for those who compete in sports — such as crew, wrestling, running and bodybuilding — that emphasize the athlete’s size, appearance, weight requirements and diet.

Risk Factors for Eating Disorders in Athletes

As noted above, those sports that place a substantial emphasize on weight requirements, muscularity and appearance have been found to be a risk factor for eating disorders in athletes. Those sports that include a heightened belief that if an athlete has a lower body weight, their performance will improve are also a risk factor. A male or female who is considered to be an elite athlete — or one who has been training for a sport since childhood — is also more likely to have an eating disorder.

Sports that are more individualized, such as dance, running, diving, gymnastics and figure skating, tend to lead to eating disorders more often when compared to team sports like soccer and basketball. Having a coach that focuses on the athlete’s performance and success instead of taking a holistic approach can also set the stage for eating disorders.

Unique Aspects of Eating Disorders in Female Athletes

Additional cultural factors that can make female athletes particularly vulnerable to developing an eating disorder include performance anxiety, an identity that’s focused almost exclusively on athletic participation, negative self-evaluation of the athlete’s achievements and social influences that place an emphasis on thinness.

Another factor that can lead to eating disorders in athletes involves a genetic component. An athlete that has a family history of eating disorders has a strong predisposition to develop one as well. According to twin and family studies, up to 83 percent of bulimia nervosa incidences and 76 percent of anorexia nervosa incidences have genetic factors. Other events that can make it more likely that an athlete will have an eating disorder are those with a family dysfunction like a parent who lives through their child’s success in sports, as well as those that have experienced sexual, emotional and/or physical abuse and other traumatic incidents.

Signs of Eating Disorders in Athletes

Athletes are already engaged in strenuous physical and mental activities that put a great deal of strain and pressure on their minds and bodies. The addition of an eating disorder puts these athletes at a greater risk for serious medical complications such as:

  • gastric rupture
  • electrolyte imbalances
  • heart failure
  • premature osteoporosis and others

In many cases, it can be difficult for those around an athlete to convince them that help is needed. Some signs that an athlete has an eating disorder include significant weight loss, anxiety, muscle cramps, excessive exercise, hypothermia, stress fractures, preoccupation with eating and weight, dental problems, use of diet pills and laxatives, dehydration and vocalizations of feeling or being fat in spite of visible evidence.

Eating Disorder Treatment for Athletes

Bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa are the two most common eating disorders in athletes. Coaches, parents and other important people in the athlete’s life that suspect an eating disorder should offer a supportive environment coupled with a multi-pronged approach. In some cases, eating disorders in athletes can become a chronic condition that is debilitating. However, many athletes with an eating disorder such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa can become their healthy self once again with the right treatment.

Close cooperation between the therapist, athlete, coach and/or family is vital in achieving a satisfactory outcome. A residential treatment center focused on an experience that offers truth without judgment and a people first, therapist second approach offers a solid foundation of support and related services. Providing the eating disorder self with a supportive structure and treatment options that are grounded in recovered staff provides a framework that helps athletes address the underlying issues that are at play. Becoming fully recovered is possible with the right treatment, support and staff.