By Stuart Koman, PhD  and Gail Hanson-Mayer, APRN

You would think that professional athletes, who need to be in near-perfect shape to compete, would be the last people to have an eating disorder.

Yet athletes – both men and women – may be two to three times more likely to have an eating disorder than the average person, according to a 1999 study of college athletes by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  A 2004 study of top athletes in Norway reached a similar conclusion, finding that 13.5% of athletes surveyed had an eating disorder, compared with 4.6% of the control group.

While additional research is needed, the same characteristics that make college athletes vulnerable to eating disorders may be even more prevalent in professional athletes.  At the professional level, the stakes are higher, and the characteristics that help athletes at the highest levels to excel may also be found in those with eating disorders.

A study comparing the psychological profiles of athletes with anorexics found many common traits, including high self-expectations, perfectionism, competitiveness, hyperactivity, repetitive exercise routines, compulsiveness, drive, a distorted body image, preoccupation with weight and dieting, and a tendency toward depression.

Professional athletes typically begin training at an early age and are prone to over-exercise.  Their parents are sometimes demanding and controlling.  Depending on the sport, training may take place in near social isolation.

Athletes are also sometimes obsessive about their weight, because in some sports, being a few pounds lighter or a few pounds heavier can make athletes more competitive.  In some cases, they need to stay within a certain weight range to stay in their current weight class.

All of these factors can contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

What to Do

Especially in the early stages, most people who have an eating disorder are in denial about it.  The typical rationalization is, “I’m just doing this to get myself in better shape to play.”  Failure to accept the problem and to do something about it will only lead to bigger problems in the future.

Whether or not you have signs of an eating disorder, consider consulting a nutritionist for help in developing a healthy diet.  Many professional teams have nutritionists on staff for that purpose.

If you are binging and purging, or showing other signs of having an eating disorder, seek medical help immediately.

The earlier an eating disorder is treated, the more likely you will be to make a full recovery.  You will miss playing time, as your body will need time to heal and your pattern of exercise will need to be disrupted, but failure to act quickly can end your career and can even be a fatal mistake.

Are you an athlete struggling with disordered eating or nutritional deficiencies? This special program might help.

Dr. Stuart Koman

Stuart Koman, Ph.D. is President and CEO of Walden Behavioral Care and the nonprofit Walden Center for Education and Research, both in Waltham, Mass. He has 30 years of experience leading and developing behavioral healthcare companies.