An estimated 14-62% of athletes are affected by an eating disorder, depending on the sport and the gender of the participant. These numbers appear to be on the rise due to increased awareness and treatment for such an elite group. Athletes face an even greater physical risk to themselves compared to non-athletes due to the stress that they place on their bodies on a daily basis. Those most vulnerable are involved in “appearance” sports (i.e. gymnastics, swim, figure skating and dance), however they also occur in endurance sports (i.e. running or cycling) and sports that have weight classifications (i.e. wrestling). Many of these cases are not reported, or handled in secret due to pressures to perform and encouragement of coaches for achievement.
No one disorder affects these athletes, as food is used in a myriad of ways to cope. Some athletes may restrict caloric intake to drop weight or perform faster, while others purge their food to achieve the same goal. Others may become ravenously hungry due to high activity levels, binge because they are starving, and then compensate for calories thru excessive exercise or throwing up. Most athletes have disordered or idiosyncratic eating patterns due to the demands placed on their bodies.
Less is known about male athletes, since most of the research is measured with women. One issue they contend with is body dysmorphia, which leads to a preoccupation with becoming muscular, and a desire to promote size and strength of the individual. Many males affected with the disorder go unnoticed or untreated as there is an avoidance of discussing such concerns.
Coaches, teammates and parents should be aware of the traditional warning signs of eating disorders to help those that may be suffering. The team physician has the responsibility to monitor athletes for symptoms such as dizziness, decreased stamina, fatigue or weight loss. Without such monitoring, serious health risks, including cardiac failure, can occur.
Since the late 1980’s the NCAA has made a specific effort to target eating disorders in college athletes, conducting research and screenings. Posters for eating disorders are plastered all over female college locker rooms, and while the NCAA posts a 53 page brochure dedicated to the female athlete triad, there is little to specifically address males. More info on NCAA resources can be found at: http://www.ncaa.org/health-safety.
While the sport is not necessarily the cause of the disorder, the involvement in athletics coupled with any genetic/temperament predisposition to eating disorders, creates a convergence of risk factors that is problematic for athletes.
Lyndsay Elliott, PsyD is a Clinical Psychologist and maintains a boutique practice in Newport Beach, California. Dr. Lyndsay specializes in food and body image issues, and has been an expert in the field since 1996. In addition to the information provided on her website, www.DrLyndsayElliott.com, articles and tips are posted regularly via Twitter @DrLyndsay.