When it comes to eating disorders, young athletes are particularly susceptible. Gymnasts, runners, ballerina, bodybuilders, rowers, wrestlers, jockeys, dancers, and swimmers are more vulnerable. There has been an increase in studies into eating disorders in athletes during the previous two decades. Over one-third of female Division 1 NCAA athletes reported having attitudes and symptoms suggestive of anorexia nervosa, according to research. While the majority of athletes with eating disorders are female, male athletes are also at risk—particularly those who compete in sports that place a premium on nutrition, appearance, size, and weight requirements, such as wrestling, bodybuilding, crew, and running.
While athletics are an excellent method to develop self-esteem, increase physical fitness, and teach the value of collaboration, not all sporting pressures are beneficial. The pressure to win combined with a concentration on body weight and shape can be lethal. Competition in the arena of athletics can also have a detrimental effect on one’s mental and physical health. When the pressures of athletic competition are combined with an already prevalent cultural emphasis on thinness, the likelihood of athletes developing disordered eating increases.
There is a correlation between eating disorders and disordered eating, although they are not always the same. While all eating disorders are characterized by disordered eating, not every disordered eating meets diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. When the term “disordered eating” was initially coined, it was considered a component of the female athlete triad – a diagnosis that also includes low bone mineral density and osteoporosis – and was characterized as “a broad spectrum of detrimental and frequently unproductive eating practices adopted in attempts to shed weight or achieve a lean appearance.” Later, the term “inefficient energy availability” was adopted to represent the function that insufficient energy plays in accounting for all physical activity, as well as in fueling regular biological processes such as growth and development, as well as in maintaining health.
Eating disorders are prevalent in all sports, but not equally so. As is the case in society, eating disorders are more prominent in women than males in athletics. One area where research findings are more conclusive is in “lean” sports, in which it is considered that a thin/lean physique or low weight provides a biomechanical advantage in performance or in performance evaluation. Women participating in these sports are thought to be the most vulnerable.
Athletes may face more stress than non-athletes because they must deal with not only the transition away from home and the responsibilities associated with college academic requirements, but also with the pressures involved with sport participation. Eating disorders are frequently used as a coping mechanism for such pressures. As society and culture place a premium on the “thin ideal,” comparable pressures exist in the sporting environment regarding being thin/lean and its alleged beneficial effect on athletic performance. This emphasis on body weight/fat loss to improve athletic performance may result in weight pressures from coaches (or even teammates) on the athlete, increasing the likelihood of restrictive dieting, as well as the adoption of pathogenic weight-loss strategies and disordered eating. Even the athlete’s notion that her coach believes she should lose weight can exacerbate weight-related pressures and raise the likelihood of developing disordered eating.
Athletes who wear exposing uniforms may be more self-conscious about their bodies and more likely to engage in unhealthy weight management measures. According to research, 45 percent of swimmers said their swimsuits were a stressor. Volleyball players’ self-esteem and performance were significantly impacted by their revealing outfits, according to a new study.
Female student-athletes have a more complicated relationship between body image and body dissatisfaction than the overall population. Disordered eating or an eating disorder can arise in either or both of sportswomen’s two body images, one in sports and one outside of sports. It’s also possible that a female student-athlete may feel uncomfortable about being viewed as too muscular based on cultural norms about femininity because she has a body that promotes sports performance but doesn’t fit the socially preferred body type.
Sports environments may also misperceive eating disorder symptoms such as diets, weight loss, and excessive training as “normal,” and personality characteristics/behaviors comparable to those of eating disorder patients, such as perfectionism and excessive training, as “good athlete” features.
In athletes, even mild variations of eating disorders should be treated immediately because they can have a negative impact on both their health and their ability to perform. For coaches and trainers, practical guidelines are provided on how to recognize the physical indicators of eating disorders as well as their psychological and behavioral manifestations. Athletes should be able to get the proper treatment and assistance when they need it through strong preventative and screening programs.
“Eating Disorders & Athletes.” National Eating Disorders Association, 27 Apr. 2018, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/eating-disorders-athletes.
NCAA.org – The Official Site Of the NCAA. (n.d.). NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA. https://www.ncaa.org/sport-science-institute/mind-body-and-sport-eating-disorders.
David M. Garner, Lionel W. Rosen, Declan Barry, Eating Disorders Among Athletes: Research and Recommendations, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 7, Issue 4, 1998, Pages 839-857, ISSN 1056-4993, (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1056499318302153)