Breaking Down the Relationship Between Athletics and Eating Disorders

Athletics make a huge impact on many young women’s and men’s lives. They can inspire leadership skills, perseverance, teamwork, and self-confidence. However, for all the many positives that athletics can add to a person’s life, there are certain aspects of a sports-focused lifestyle that can increase risk factors for the development of eating disorders and associated exercise disorders. Here, we’ll explore some of the links between sports participation and eating disorders.  

As we discuss these factors, please keep in mind that taking part in athletics is in no way a guarantee that someone will develop an eating disorder or exercise disorder. The vast majority won’t, of course. However, by keeping an eye out for the symptoms of a growing disorder, loved ones of an athlete can help prevent a difficult challenge in their lives or stop one that has already developed. 

What Are the Potential Risk Factors?

Despite all the ways athletic participation can provide benefits, they can introduce additional factors that increase their risk of developing eating disorders. There are a wide variety of potential risk factors – not of which are the same. Different sports bring different focuses and different stressors for someone prone to developing an eating disorder.

In most cases of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders, the person in question is already predisposed to disordered attitudes about food and weight. There is some indication that there is a genetic component to these disorders, and societal pressures driven by media and peer pressure are much more likely to trigger a disorder than athletics. However, for people already at risk, the following aspects of certain athletic activities can be the tipping point:

Perfectionism Out of Control

Many sports require a laser-like focus on a particular skill or set of skills. Think of the sprinter, practicing their first step out of the clocks over and over again. That razor-sharp focus can put tons of pressure on an athlete to improve their skills and achieve even greater results each season.

This kind of perfectionism is something that’s also common for people with eating disorders. Many are driven to disordered behaviors by a desire to “perfect” their body by losing weight or controlling food intake (or purging, in the case of bulimia nervosa). Perfectionism is not a bad thing per se, but when it gets out of control, it can be a risk factor.

Focus on Body Image and Appearance

Especially in individual sports, athletes may feel that all attention is on them, and that can lead to self-consciousness about their bodies. Athletes like figure skaters and swimmers, who tend to have more of their body exposed feel this even more strongly in many cases.

As they become preoccupied with their body image, concerns about their shape and size can lead to engaging in diets and other restrictive behaviors. They may also try to change or control their body by dramatically increasing physical activity levels. It’s also possible to get locked into these negative self-image issues, which sends the person into a cycle of body negativity and disordered eating behaviors to cope with it.

Emphasis on Weight Control

Gymnastics, running, and many other sports emphasize the need for a lean build to achieve the ultimate in performance. Some sports even have strict weight limits and classes, such as wrestling or boxing. These emphases on staying below a particular weight can wreak havoc on a person who is predisposed to extreme weight controls.

They may respond to their difficulties maintaining weight by resorting to disordered eating patterns or increasing their daily exercise. Depending on the type of disordered behaviors they engage in, they may develop bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, or similar conditions as a result.

Social Pressure from Peers

Unlike the individual sports we’ve discussed earlier, team sports can bring with them intense pressure from a person’s teammates to perform at a certain level and maintain a certain body type. These social pressure to perform aren’t caused out of malice, of course.People involved in team sports may fear letting down their team – even if their mates don’t say anything, they might put that pressure on themselves.

If they do make a bad play or otherwise disappoint the team, that self-imposed pressure might be all the worse. To avoid letting the team down again the athlete might redouble their efforts to improve, which leads to excessive exercise or dieting. They might also engage in those behaviors as a way to overcome their alleged shortcomings and achieve the right level of performance for their teammates.

Risk Factors That Aren’t Necessarily Related to Sports

    • Poor Body Image and Low Self-Esteem

While success in athletics can bring a boost to self-esteem,a poor stretch can cause it to plummet. Over time, low self-esteem regarding athletic performance can spread to other aspects of the athlete’s life, including their feelings of attractiveness or body weight. Distorted perception of one’s weight is a key symptom of almost every eating disorder.

Chronic low self-esteem is strongly linked to the development of eating disorders due to its negative impact on the psyche. As individuals feel bad about themselves, they may look closely for flaws that they can control. Focus often goes to weight and size, as those factors are often emphasized in the sports world. When that happens, they may adopt disordered eating and exercise habits that become ingrained and damage their wellbeing in the long run.

Troubled Family Life

Dysfunctional family dynamics are also linked to the development of eating disorders in athletes and non-athletes alike.

    • A lack of boundaries
    • Absence of empathy
    • Conflict and arguing
    • Poor communication
    • Minimal time together

We’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit here, but when the decision has been made to seek out an eating disorder treatment center, it’s absolutely essential that they provide family training sessions and family education programs. Improving the family’s support structure helps recovered people immeasurably. The emphasis should be on positive communication and empathy, with the family considering ways they can further their loved one’s improved relationship with food and eating.

Common Eating Disorders in Athletes

When the risk factors discussed above reach a breaking point, an athlete might begin to show the signs of an eating disorder. Disordered behaviors often follow as they attempt to cope with distressing thoughts and pressures. This cycle leads to the start of eating disorders that can have a lasting impact on their health and wellbeing. The most common eating disorders associated with student-athletes include:

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is defined as a recurrent and long-term engagement in binge eating episodes followed by purging behaviors. The binge eating episodes involve eating a large amount of food in a single session, then purge it all back out by forcing themselves to vomit. Or, instead of vomiting, they may misuse laxatives to force their bodies to quickly eliminate the excess calories without absorbing them. Excessive exercise is another form of purging that’s associated with athletes with bulimia nervosa. 

Anorexia Nervosa

This condition develops as people seriously restrict their food intake, only consuming a limited number of calories each day. Food restriction in this fashion may severely restrict a person’s ability to engage in athletics since substantial caloric intake is needed for athletic exertion, which is why distance runners often “carb-load” before a race. Troublingly, people with anorexia are also prone to using exercise to compensate for everything they eat and avoid gaining weight. This can lead to serious health consequences including seizures and even death.

Binge Eating Disorder

Although it is typically associated with weight gain instead of loss, binge eating disorder is another condition that can affect athletes. This eating disorder occurs as individuals use food to cope with overwhelming negative emotions and stress. When affected by this condition, people engage in binge eating episodes of certain types of food over a short period. They do not engage in purging behaviors, however, resulting in weight gain from the overeating behaviors. The restrictions of dieting for athletes who have to reach a certain weight may trigger these binge eating episodes.

All of these eating disorders initially give athletes a sense of control over their bodies. The disordered thoughts and behaviors quickly become overwhelming, however, causing serious distress that compounds their difficulties. At this point, specialized eating disorder treatment, on an inpatient or outpatient basis, becomes necessary.

Signs That Indicate a Need for Eating Disorder Treatment

Although each eating disorder presents a bit differently, some common warning signs indicate it might be time to consider eating disorder treatment:

    • Inability to control the disordered thoughts and actions
    • Guilt and shame about eating and weight
    • Weight fluctuations 
    • Wearing baddy clothes to hide their body
    • Unwillingness to eat in public
    • The development of depression and anxiety
    • Dry skin and hair loss
    • Vomiting and constipation
    • Dehydration
    • Dizziness and fainting

When loved ones notice any warning signs of binge eating disorder,bulimia nervosa, or similar conditions in their kids, or just feel like something is wrong, they can’t contact a doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, or eating disorder treatment facility for guidance on the next steps to take. In many cases, even if the doctor doesn’t specialize in eating disorder treatment, they’ll be able to refer you to someone who can.

As mentioned earlier, family support sessions should a major part of the treatment plan. Most eating disorder treatment programs will include extensive talk therapy sessions in both individual and group settings, as well as exposure therapy (facing their food and eating fears), mindful movement like yoga, and meditation practices. If medical care is needed, a residential or inpatient treatment center can provide 24/7 coverage. 

Athletics can bring so much to a person’s life – pride, a sense of accomplishment, physical fitness. In the rare cases when they trigger an eating or exercise disorder, it’s so important the athlete and their family don’t lose hope. Reach out to an eating disorder treatment facility and get started on a happier, healthier life.


With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.