Eating Disorders & Elite Athletes
By: Hannah de Groot, MEd.
With the 2021 Olympics starting this week, it seems like a perfect time to talk SPORTS! As a lifelong athlete and lover of competition, sports are one of my passions and an important part of my identity. While sports can facilitate meaningful friendships, teach discipline and hard work, and be a beautiful form of self expression, it is no secret that sports are not all fun and games (pun intended). Eating disorders run rampant in the sports world, a known fact that is hardly publicly talked about. Today, we are discussing the development, impact and social implications of eating disorders in athletes.
When we think about the cross over between eating disorders and sports, some specific sports might come to mind. While sports that emphasize appearance, muscularity and weight requirements (such as dance, gymnastics and wrestling) put athletes at a higher risk, other sports should not be excluded from the conversation. While the prevalence of eating disorders varies across sports, there is no sport in which the prevalence is zero. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) recently reported that over one third of all NCAA Division I female athletes show symptoms of anorexia nervosa. Male athletes are also at risk - studies show that about 25% of people living with anorexia nervosa and 40% of people living with binge eating disorder are male. It is also very likely that cases are underreported due to stigmas. There are many reasons why being an athlete increases risk, including an overemphasis on appearance, perfectionistic tendencies or even slightly improved performance after weight loss.
In addition to the stressors that non-athletes face while living with eating disorders, athletes deal with compounded physical and emotional stress. For example, restricting food intake contributes to the female athlete triad. The female athlete triad is a combination of disordered eating, loss of period, and low bone mineral density that can have devastating impacts on athletes’ bones, not to mention drastically hurt performance. While losing weight may initially improve performance, it is not sustainable and can cause career-ending injury like stress fractures, shin splints and even spinal cord injuries. Eating disorders are physically straining and can cause emotional damage. Using mental space to count calories, obsessively track macronutrients and read nutrition labels distracts from sports and spills over into sleep, school and social life.
While eating disorders are extremely common in the sports world, they are often unrecognized and mistreated. Certain sports value some body types over others, inadvertently encouraging restriction and purging, and even making disordered eating something to flaunt. Uneducated coaches often praise restriction and undereating, citing the immediate benefits without recognizing the detrimental long term consequences. Not to mention, athletes value traits like grit and perseverance, which stigmatizes mental illness and discourages seeking treatment.
Properly fueling your body is essential for success on the field (or court, pool, gym or rink). Professional athletes like Serena Williams, David Ortiz and Bethany Hamilton prove that all bodies are capable of winning and worthy of success. Now, thanks to decorated athletes like Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and Shawn Johnson, seeking mental health treatment is less stigmatized, and can even lead to better performance. If you or an athlete you know are living with an eating disorder, we see you and honor you on your recovery journey.