Eating Disorders amongst Athletes: What to Know?

Written by Dr. Katie Patterson, PsyD, LPC, NCC

Although the prevalence of eating disorders among athletes is high, they often go unnoticed by coaches, teammates, and the athlete themself. In part, this is due to the sport culture and “norms” related to nutrition, training, and performance mindsets. These sport-environment “norms” can result in immense pressure and unrealistic performance expectations that can be a dangerous catalyst to or enable an existing eating disorder.

What is an eating disorder?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders are behavioral conditions that consist of distressing thoughts and emotions related to food, body, and self, and are accompanied with a disturbance in eating behaviors. The most well-known types of eating disorders include, but are not limited to, Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. Although not a formal diagnosis that is recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical manual, Orthorexia is another eating and health concern seen in athletes.

Why are athletes more at risk?

Athletes face a higher risk of perfectionism and unrealistic body and health standards because of the unique sport-specific pressures they experience. Typically, excessive exercise is normalized in most competitive sport environments, which can lead to weight loss, injuries, and an unhealthy relationship with exercise and fitness. There are also high-performance expectations from coaches, teammates, and self, which can lead to perfectionistic thinking. In addition to these, other sport-specific factors, such as revealing uniforms and weight-classified sports, may impact body image resulting in attempts to manipulate weight, shape, or size.

What are the warning signs?

  • Preoccupation with food, calories, cooking, nutrition
  • Excessive/compulsive exercise
  • Frequent weighing
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Hair loss
  • Depression
  • Cognitive deficits (i.e., slowness of thought, worsening of memory)
  • Loss of menstrual period
  • Reoccurring injuries (i.e., stress fractures)
  • “Feeling” fat, despite not being overweight
  • Strange food-related behaviors/rituals/rules

What to do if you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder?

  • Tell someone (i.e., coach, trainer, teammate, school counselor, parent)
  • Encourage open conversations with teammates and coaches
  • Contact the NEDA helpline
  • Seek support and contact a Refresh Mental Health clinic to inquire about the eating disorder services we offer


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