Eating Disorders in Athletes: Why They’re More Common Than You Think
6 Min Read
Patrick Devenny was a NCAA Division I football player about to enter Pro Day, where he would undergo an in-depth body screening by NFL scouts. At a time when he should have been pleased with his career as a student-athlete and excited about the prospect of potentially playing in the NFL, he was overcome with anxiety.
In an interview in Born Fitness, he described what he would be facing. “You walk into a room full of scouts, and you’re shirtless, and they’re grabbing every inch of your body, measuring body fat, measuring your hands, doing all this stuff.” Wanting to get his body in shape for the scouts, he unknowingly and dangerously developed an eating disorder. His mental and physical health suffered, and he began losing strength and experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Devenny’s story is tragically becoming more and more common. Eating disorders in athletes have become more prevalent, and it’s time to address the problem.
Breaking Down the Issue of Eating Disorders in Athletes
Before attention can be given to the ways that athletes are affected by and suffer from eating disorders, it’s helpful to unpack the different kinds of eating disorders that commonly affect people more generally.
The National Institute of Mental Health described eating disorders as “serious and often fatal illnesses that are associated with severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.” In its evaluation and treatment options, it focused on anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
- Anorexia Nervosa: Often conflated with body dysmorphia, people who suffer from anorexia view their bodies “as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight.” With the highest mortality rate of all eating disorders, those suffer from this illness deprive their bodies of necessary nutrition as means of losing weight.
- Bulimia Nervosa: People with bulimia nervosa typically follow a binge-purge cycle, where “binge-eating is followed by behavior that compensates for the overeating, such as forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors.” In addition to the intestinal and digestive, those with bulimia usually have complications in other parts of the body as the stomach acid burns away enamel in teeth and inflames the throat.
- Binge-Eating Disorder: Sometimes referred to as stress-eating, people who are affected by binge-eating disorder lose control over their food consumption and eat too much. As a result, people with the illness are commonly overweight or obese.
Athletes suffer from each of these disorders at a disproportionately higher rate than people outside of competitive activity. This growing trend has begun to receive attention in scholarly, governmental, medical, and news circles. The NCAA unpacked some of the conditions that lead an athlete to develop an eating disorder. They attribute the growing rate to four major issues:
- Pervasiveness of the problem: Eating disorders have become increasingly more commonplace because of the growing use of unrealistic body types in the media. The NCAA said this problem extends to and is even amplified in the world of sports. It is especially concerning in “sports for which a thin/lean body or low weight is believed to provide a biomechanical advantage in performance or in the judging of performance.”
- Genetic predisposition: An unexpected risk factor for athletes with eating disorders could be their genetic makeup. Like with substance abuse or other mental illnesses, an athlete’s genetic predisposition could make them much more likely to be affected by an eating disorder.
- Social and cultural comparisons: Outside of sports, athletes may feel external pressures from social and cultural norms. The NCAA clarified that genetic traits could provide a foundation for the development of eating disorders in athletes, “but sociocultural pressures can precipitate it.”
- Sport-specific pressures: Eating disorders have become increasingly common in athletes in part because of the intense demands that competition brings. The NCAA stated that the nature of competition often calls on athletes to trim weight or to reach a weight threshold, depending on the sport. As a result, athletes feel significantly more pressure to address their weight through unhealthy, potentially dangerous ways.
As in the world outside of sports, female athletes are more likely to be affected by an eating disorder than their male counterparts. The National Eating Disorders Association gave context to the ways that female athletes suffer from eating disorders disproportionately more than males. The organization states that female athletes are more vulnerable to three primary risk factors: external social pressures to maintain thinness, competition stress, participating in and negatively reflecting on athletic performance.
These factors that lead to eating disorders in athletes have started to receive scholarly attention, too. A 2019 article in the Journal of Sports Medicine explores how, in the case of NCAA Division I distance and track athletes, competitors were much more likely to develop an eating disorder. Researchers administered the Eating Disorder Screen for Primary Care 638 student-athletes of both sexes and found “that, among distance runners, both males and females are at risk of eating disorders, with females being at higher risk.” While the research in this study focused on one sport, it’s still helpful in understanding how athletes in other competitions can suffer from eating disorders.
Giving Support to Athletes with Eating Disorders
As the problem of eating disorders in athletes continues to grow, it’s necessary for coaches and medical staff to construct and implement both screening and treatment practices. A 2016 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine provided a call to action to help navigate the problems of eating disorders in athletes by “using evidence-based guidelines for clearance and return to play.” In doing so, after an athlete has been positively screened for having an eating disorder, the athlete, coach, and team physician can work together to adopt the best treatment course. Building this culture of transparency and openness within a team or among athletes can play a critical role in making athletes with eating disorders feel more comfortable about asking for help. This is an increasingly important measure for sports organizations to adopt, since it can act as an effective prescriptive measure in building a safe environment for athletes.
Similarly, Ruben Castaneda of U.S. News reported on effective treatment practices for competitors suffering from eating disorders. He found that after the coaching staff and the athlete with the eating disorder are made aware of the fatal severity of the problem, they need to seek out professional medical and psychological help. Specifically, Castaneda writes that “athletes with eating disorders should try to find health care providers who understand that being an athlete is an important part of your life.” Therapists who have experience working specifically with athletes will know the nuances of the demands of competition, and as a result, their treatment plans will prove much more effective.
To best navigate the growing problem of eating disorders in athletes, prospective coaching and training staff should consider learning more from professionals with direct experience in the field. As future trainers and coaches begin to understand the needs of athletes with eating disorders, they’ll be able to create treatment plans specific to their sport and to their organization. One of the best options in this capacity is to pursue an online B.A. in Exercise Science.
At Concordia St. Paul University, students are given the unique option to concentrate on kinesiology concepts in human movement, exercise and management. The flexible, 100% online also helps students balance their work and life commitments while they pursue a career in training, coaching, fitness, health and wellness, and rehabilitation sciences. Look into the program today, and plan how you’ll most effectively support your athletes.