Eating Disorders Are Common in Athletes

You may assume that athletes, whose lives are typically focused on training and staying in shape, would be unlikely to have eating disorders.

But many of the same traits that drive athletes and make them successful in their sport can also contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

In fact, studies show that athletes are two to three times more likely to have an eating disorder than non-athletes. In some aesthetic sports, where weight and body image are emphasized, data shows that as many as 42% of female athletes in this population have eating disorders, according to Eating Disorder Hope.

Athletes who develop disordered eating patterns or eating disorders can not only become less competitive and more prone to injury, they also risk permanent physical damage.

Recognizing the special challenges that athletes face, Walden created The GOALS Program, the first first of its kind in New England specifically designed to address eating disorders in competitive athletes.

Why Athletes Develop Eating Disorders

Athletes can sometimes be preoccupied or obsessed about their weight, falsely believing that being a few pounds lighter or a few pounds heavier can make them perform better. In some cases, such as boxing or resting, athletes may even be required to stay within a certain weight range to compete in their sport.

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

Warning Signs in Athletes

Athletes who develop eating disorders can not only become less competitive and more prone to injury, they also risk permanent physical damage that may even be life-threatening.

The following are some signs that an athlete may have an eating disorder:

  • Repetitive exercise or over exercise
  • Distorted body image
  • Over focus on dieting or weight
  • Over focus on dieting or weight
  • Injuries (stress fractures)
  • Dehydration
  • Depression or anxiety

Types of Eating Disorders Common in Athletes

Athletes such as gymnasts, jockeys, runners and rowers are especially susceptible to developing anorexia. Football linemen, who need to be big and strong, may be susceptible to binge eating disorder. Bulimia is common across sports, too.

Athletes may also be prone to muscle dysmorphia (also known as bigorexia) or orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating.

Treatment for Athletes with Eating Disorders

Athletes require an individualized treatment program that enables them not only to recover from their eating disorder, but, when possible, effectively return to sport and competition.

The GOALS Program is an intensive outpatient program (IOP), offering three sessions a week that include:

  • Case management, including coordinated care with an outpatient team
  • Supervision of one therapeutic meal
  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy

GOALS provides each athlete with a team of counselors, sport psychologists, dietitians, exercise science professionals and others who will work with families, healthcare professionals, coaches, sports medicine staff and others to develop individualized treatment for high school, college and adult athletes.

Regain Your Life. Walden Can Help.

If you are concerned that you – or a loved one – may have an eating disorder, we are here to help. Please call 888-791-0004 to speak with a Walden eating disorders intake specialist, or complete the form on this page, to start on the road to recovery.

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