Eating disorders can develop for many reasons. Although the exact nature of specific eating disorders varies, one of the main characteristics universal among people with an eating disorder is obsession over one's body, especially body weight. People who have eating disorders almost always have a poor body image.

Because the two time-tested methods of weight loss are diet and exercise, it makes sense that many athletes develop eating disorders as they become increasingly critical of their bodies. In turn, people who have an eating disorder may use excessive exercise as a way to either increase weight loss (anorexia) or compensate for eating too much (bulimia).

How Prevalent Is The Problem?

According to USA Today, a third of female college athletes report suffering disordered behaviors related to eating. Concerns about body image are particularly prevalent in athletic endeavors that are considered “aesthetic", such as: Dancing, gymnastics, cheerleading, diving and figure skating. Importantly, however, eating disorders affect both male and female athletes, especially in sports with weight requirements.

Why Do Athletes Develop Eating Disorders?

As mentioned above, eating disorders usually coincide with a negative body image. Most athletes are involved in competitive sports, implying they are constantly “sizing up" the competition; including being very aware of their competitor's physical condition. Although most athletes admit to imposing unfair expectations about their body on themselves, some sports have clear weight requirements (e.g., jockeys and wrestlers).

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Some sports, like professional cheerleading, have been known to dismiss team members for being above a certain weight; as reported by Mary Ellen Hanson in her book Go! Fight! Win! Cheerleading In American Culture. Importantly, however, athletes are extremely driven individuals who may be—as a group—more prone to self-critique than the general population, which can contribute to the obsession over body weight and image.

What Are Some Signs That An Athlete May Have An Eating Disorder?

To learn more about specific eating disorders, visit Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder resources. If you think that an athlete you know may have an eating disorder, here are some signs (some of which are specific to one disorder) to look for:

  • The person abuses laxatives or diuretics
  • You never notice the person eating in public
  • The person wants to use a sauna or visit the bathroom before every competition
  • You find bottles of diet pills
  • After eating a meal, the person excuses himself/herself to go to the bathroom
  • The person obsesses over the calorie content of every food
  • Over time, the person has lost weight or has always been extremely thin
  • Sometimes the person eats a completely unreasonable amount of food (e.g., what a normal person would eat in three or more days) in a very short period of time
  • The person checks the scale frequently
  • Clear rituals (chewing a certain number of times, preparing food in a specific order) are part of every meal

How Can I Help Someone Who Has An Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are complex conditions that often require medical treatment. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for someone whom you suspect has an eating disorder is to be interested in and supportive of them outside of the context of athletics.

Praise them for their successes, but do not focus on their weight or body itself. If you feel like you have developed a good relationship with the person, you may want to bring up the topic directly or hold an intervention to encourage them to get help.