Being an athlete is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder, especially in certain sports. Female and male athletes are both vulnerable to developing eating disorders and exercise obsessions. There are limited studies on male athletes with eating disorders as the result of underreporting of eating disorders in males.
In fact, one of the top reasons given for males developing eating disorders is to improve sports performance. The issue of male athletes with eating disorders and exercise addictions needs further research. These findings will give more insight into male eating disorders and will likely show that the prevalence of male athletes makes up a significant percentage of male eating disorders.
This page lists the type of sports that athletes are most at risk for developing an eating disorder, gives some guidelines to coaches to helping them prevent eating disorders and obsessive exercising in their athletes, and offers some resources for further investigation on the subject.
Athletes seem to be at increased risk for anorexia and bulimia in sports that:
- Emphasize speed, lightness, agility, and quickness (ex. Gymnastics)
- Value appearance, size, and have weight requirements (ex. Wrestling)
- Focus on an individual rather than a team (ex. Figure Skating)
- Endurance sports (ex. – Running)
However, sports like football emphasizing bulk and muscle are more at risk for developing binge eating disorder or Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). BDD is a disorder where the individual who is large and muscular perceives himself as not big enough or muscular enough, and relentlessly pursues that unobtainable image.
The personality traits admired in dedicated athletes, such as discipline, strong drive, highly motivated and competitive, perfectionism, endurance, and loyalty to their sport are the same driving forces or traits putting someone at risk for developing an eating disorder and compulsive exercising.
Coaches, parents, teammates, and fans can also place tremendous pressure on athletes to outperform their competition. This stress and the drive to win no matter what the cost can lead some into an eating disorder.
Here is a list of tips for parents and coaches to use for preventing eating disorders and obsessive exercising in their children/athletes:
- Promote moderation in time and intensity of practices
- Encourage good sportsmanship and healthy competition
- Keep the sport fun
- Help athletes set realistic, obtainable athletic goals
- Remind athletes of importance of hydration and good nutrition
- Teach athletes to value balancing all their activities in life
- Do not pressure athletes to go beyond their abilities or reasonable efforts
- Have a “safety and health first” standard
- Model the actions you preach
National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) “Coach & Athletic Trainer Toolkit”
The Remuda Review, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Winter 2006, “Athletes and Eating Disorders” and “An Athlete with Anorexia: Case Study” (well-referenced)