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Athletes and Eating Disorders

Does playing a sport cause eating disorders?


Updated May 17, 2012

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Athletes and Eating Disorders

While it may seem like a strange idea for someone who is driven to excel at using their body to succeed at athletics to also struggle with an eating disorder, it is actually quite common. In fact, elite athletes who play at the college, national, or international levels are at a higher risk than the general population for developing an eating disorder or eating disorder symptoms.

Although certainly not all athletes have an eating disorder, it is something that is common enough that athletic programs, trainers and coaches should be aware of and have plans in place for. It is important for anyone who is struggling from an eating disorder to have the support he or she needs in order to recover.

Vulnerable Age

One of the ideas behind the fact that eating disorders are more common in athletes is that eating disorders often begin in adolescence. This is around the same time that many people begin to become extremely involved in their primary sport and advance to higher levels. It is thought that adolescence may be a vulnerable age linking these two issues together.

Increased Pressure to Perform

All athletes are under extreme pressure to perform and to conform to specific body shapes and ideals. Athletes who compete in sports that emphasize aesthetics and leanness, such as dance, gymnastics, diving and figure skating, and sports that are dependent on a specific weight, such as wrestling, are at an even higher risk of eating disorders than other athletes. Research has shown that this is true for males as well as females. One study found that as many as 42% of females participating in aesthetic sports have symptoms of an eating disorder. Interestingly, athletes who participate in ball sports, such as volleyball or basketball, don't seem to have the same increased risk.

Vulnerable Personality Traits

When someone thinks of a successful, elite athlete, they probably think of someone who is extremely motivated and has a high level of commitment to their sport, in addition to someone who has innate talent. Elite athletes are also often perfectionistic, goal-oriented, and competitive, which also happen to be extremely common personality traits among eating disorder sufferers.

Research has examined what types of personality traits are common among collegiate athletes and which of those traits are most common among athletes who also suffer from disordered eating symptoms. Many studies have shown that athletes typically have higher levels of self-esteem and body satisfaction than non-athletes. However, it turns out that when an athlete has low self-esteem or is not satisfied with their body, they are at an even higher risk for developing symptoms.

In addition, if an athlete exercises for "negative" reasons or in order to change their body, they are at higher risk than an athlete who says they exercise for fitness. This may be an important reminder even for non-athletes that the motivation behind exercising can often determine if it is a positive or negative thing to engage in.


Byrne, S. & McLean, N. (2001). Eating disorders in athletes: A review of the literature. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 4(2). 145-159.

Greenleaf, C., Petrie, T.A., Carter, J., & Reel, J.J. (2009). Female collegiate athletes: Prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors. Journal of American College Health, 57(5). 489-495.

Johnson, C. Powers, P.S., and Dick, R. (1999). Athletes and eating disorders: the National Collegiate Athletic Association Study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26(2). 179-188.

Petrie, T.A., Greenleaf, C., Reel, J. & Carter, J. (2009). Personality and psychological factos as predictors of disordered eating among female collegiate athletes. Eating Disorders 17. 302-321.

Sundgot-Borgen, J. & Torstveit, M.K. (2004). Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in the general population. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 14(1). 25-32.

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