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Eating Disorders in Athletes

Experts generally agree that certain categories of athletics place these high-achieving individuals at a greater risk for developing anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).
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With the 2012 London Olympic Games right around the corner, sports and athletic competition are increasingly on the minds of many men, women and children around the globe. However, in the shadow of sport's epic moments of glory lies a troublesome reality -- the incidence of eating disorders in athletes.

Experts generally agree that certain categories of athletics place these high-achieving individuals at a greater risk for developing anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). In fact, research published by Craig Johnson, Ph.D., FAED, CEDS, chief clinical officer of Eating Recovery Center, found that at least one-third of female college athletes have some type of eating disorder. [1]

According to Ron Thompson, a licensed psychologist specializing in eating disorders treatment at the Bloomington Center for Counseling and Human Development, consultant to the NCAA and International Olympic Committee Medical Commission and author of multiple books, including Eating Disorders in Sport, several factors converge to make athletes a special population at risk for eating disorders:

  • The pervasive belief in the sport world, held by both coaches and athletes alike, that the leaner athlete performs better, which leads to dieting.

  • Aesthetic, judged and endurance sports, including gymnastics, dance/cheerleading, cross country, swimming and wrestling.
  • Sports requiring revealing uniforms, which can put participating athletes at risk for body dissatisfaction and competitive thinness.
  • "Good athletes" possess similar personality traits to those who suffer from anorexia, which may predispose them to potential development of an eating disorder.
  • "I believe that the greatest risk to athletes is the challenge to identify an eating disorder within the sport world; if an at-risk or symptomatic athlete isn't identified, they cannot be treated," explains Dr. Thompson. [2] "Issues complicating identification involve 'sport body stereotypes' in which thinness is accepted as both normal and desirable, as well as the presumption of health with good performance.

    Interestingly, the very same perfectionistic, overachieving and people-pleasing temperament that fuels achievement in athletic competition -- both elite and casual -- closely mirrors the personality traits of those individuals who tend to develop eating disorders. For both male and female athletes, the combination of these traits, along with the body shape- and weight-focused demands of many competitive sports, creates the perfect storm that can trigger eating disordered thoughts and behaviors.

    Warning signs of eating disorders among athletes can be difficult to identify, as they can be masked easily and often go unreported by the athletes themselves. However, common indicators specific to sport participation include a decrease in performance, an increase in exercise outside of routine training activities, stress fractures and other overuse injuries.

    If you observe these warning signs in yourself or in your athletic friends and families, support from a qualified eating disorders treatment professional and resources for eating disorders help may be necessary. Treatment programming and environment isn't distinctly different for athletes than non-athletes struggling with eating disorders. However, identifying strategies to protect recovery following discharge, especially as athletes consider re-engaging in athletic activity on a casual or competitive level, is incredibly important treatment component for an athlete.


    1. Johnson, C., Powers, P.S., Dick, R. Athletes and Eating Disorders: The National Collegiate Athletic Association Study. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999, International Journal of Eating Disorders 26, 179-188.


    For more by Kenneth L. Weiner, M.D., FAED, CEDS, click here.

    For more on eating disorders, click here.

    If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.