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The Science and Art of Counselling and Psychotherapy: Eating Disorders Among Athletes

Participating in organized sports has several advantages, including enhanced self-esteem and body image, as well as motivation to stay active throughout one’s life. Athletic competition, on the other hand, can result in significant psychological and physical stress. Some athletes put in hours of intensive training for their sport while attempting to reduce weight by engaging in unhealthy eating habits (Chapman & Woodman, 2016). Athletes frequently develop eating disorders as a result of this practice. Additionally, when the stress of sports competition is combined with a cultural emphasis on thinness, the likelihood of athletes developing disordered eating increases. Though female athletes are more likely to develop eating problems, men athletes are equally at risk. As a result, the goal of this educational factsheet is to raise understanding and awareness of these physiological and psychological difficulties that impact young athletes in sports clubs and high schools aged 16 to 28. The factsheet is a key preventative tool aimed at assisting in the early detection, prevention, and restoration of wellbeing, as well as reducing anxiety and increasing awareness particularly among female athletes.

Reasons Athletes are Prone to Eating Disorders

Eating disorders have become a source of worry and controversy in several sections of society in recent years. People suffering from these disorders, on the other hand, seldom seek professional care willingly since they are unaware that they have a problem. Furthermore, because of the degenerative nature of these conditions, assessing, diagnosing, and treating them is extremely challenging. Eating disorders are psychological diseases that can have serious consequences for athletes.

The circumstances that both men and women are obliged to maintain are one of the reasons why eating disorders are so common in sports. Athletes are usually obliged to maintain a certain weight during their training (Mehler & Andersen, 2017). The performance is matched to the type of their weight. Athletes may develop bad eating habits as a result of this. For example, in sports requiring endurance, such as long-distance running, an athlete’s leanness is linked to performance for physiological reasons (Mehler & Andersen, 2017). Before the race, any runner who weighs many pounds more than his or her opponents is considered to be at a disadvantage. As a result, athletes engaging in endurance activities will be motivated to maintain a slim physique. In addition, several sports, such as wrestling, boxing, and judo, have weight limitations for different levels of participation (Joy et al.,2016). Any athlete who wants to compete in a certain category will be pushed to acquire weight.

Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorder is a psychiatric condition that many women, even collegiate athletes, can develop. This is because sports are seen to have the capacity to “improve female athletes’ self-worth and self-image.” Some believe that because most of these athletes engage in a lot of physical activity, they aren’t as aware of their bodies as they would be if they weren’t exercising on a regular basis. Young women, on the other hand, continue to have erroneous perceptions of their weight and attempt to lose it excessively (de Bruin, & Oudejans, 2018). As a result, female athletes are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders or participating in poor weight-control activities. Furthermore, female athletes are pressured to be skinny in society since thinness is considered as a symbol of attractiveness. As a result, athletes, particularly female athletes, are more likely than the general population to develop eating problems.

Eating disorders are horrific, self-approved ordeals. Anorexia nervosa is one of the most common eating disorders among athletes (Joy et al., 2016). Despite being underweight, anorexia nervosa is characterized by a dread of being overweight. Amenorrhea, body image distortion, and denial that a person is underweight are further symptoms of the disease. People with the disease sometimes reject or are unable to maintain a healthy weight. According to statistics, athletes are also vulnerable to bulimia nervosa, which manifests itself mostly through frequent and regular eating binges (Wagner et al., 2016). Food binges are episodes in which people consume excessive amounts of food in a short period of time. When a person consumes an excessive amount of food in a short period of time, they have a compensatory impulse to self-induce vomiting. Bulimia nervosa patients are generally afraid of getting overweight. When athletes show signs of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, they are diagnosed with an eating disorder. Unless a doctor says the behaviour is not a disorder.

Risk Factors of Eating Disorder

There are various elements that might increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder. They include:

  • Sports that emphasize the individual rather than the team as a whole
  • Track and field, running, and swimming are examples of endurance sports.
  • Coaches that are more concerned with achievement and performance than with the player as a full person.
  • The assumption that losing weight will increase performance is exaggerated.
  • Athletes’ personalities, particularly top athletes’ personalities, may increase the chance of developing eating problems.
  • Low self-esteem, family eating disorder, peer, family, and cultural demands to be slim, and traumatic life experiences.

Other variables that are considered to play a role specifically in a female athlete’s sensitivity to developing an eating disorder include societal pressures to be slim, performance anxiety, and a negative self-perception of athletic accomplishment. A fourth aspect is self-identity based purely on sports involvement.

Warning Signs among Athletes

It can be challenging to recognize eating disorders in athletes because athletes trying to enhance performance may have traits that coincide with eating disorder characteristics, but are not necessarily pathological. However, the following signs can indicate that an athlete has an eating disorder.

  • Minor injuries or season-ending injuries such as pulling muscles that take longer to recuperate from than usual, and stress fractures
  • Weight loss or a dip in growth curve in teenagers
  • Recent increase in sports activity without a forthcoming competition. In high school or sports club players, this may involve more aerobic training outside of practice
  • Performance decline.
  • Following a specialized diet to boost performance is common, thus the sort of diet might be an indicator as well. A low-carb diet, for example, is not required for most athletes, although a high-protein diet is acceptable.
  • Expressing concerns about being overweight when their weight is actually below normal.
  • Experiencing lightheadedness or disorientation that cannot be explained by other medical conditions.
  • Female athletes have irregular periods.

Many of these signals are insufficient in the athlete since many of them are typical in an athlete. However, if many indications are present, an eating problem should be suspected. Besides Even though some of these eating disorders are classified as psychological or behavioral, they are easier to treat if caught early.

Consequences of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders may have serious repercussions for anybody, but they might manifest differently in athletes. Eating disorders in athletes can have major medical effects, such as a reduction in muscular and bone health owing to insufficient energy. Furthermore, due to the heightened physiologic demands of training and competition, athletes are at a higher risk for these repercussions. Eating disorders can also have a negative influence on athletic performance, such as decreased sport performance owing to dehydration or exhaustion, as well as an increased chance of injury (Mehler & Andersen, 2017). When injured, athletes with eating disorders may take longer to recover from injuries than athletes without eating problems.

An athlete’s energy production requires optimum nutrition and optimal physiological functioning, both of which are compromised by an eating disorder. The detrimental effects of eating disorder behaviors on female athletes, on the other hand, are so widespread that treatment experts refer to it as the “Female Athlete Triad” syndrome. Menstrual dysfunction, low energy supply, and low bone mineral density are all symptoms of the syndrome. The lack of nourishment caused by disordered eating, on the other hand, might lead to the loss of several or even more menstruation cycle in a row. This, in turn, causes calcium and bone loss, putting the athlete at a far higher risk of stress fractures.


Most nutritionists and sports scientists advocate that athletes consult with a nutritionist as a preventative measure. Engaging nutritionists would also imply that the athlete’s behaviors and habits are constantly monitored. When an eating disorder is discovered, the nutritionist and other health professionals dealing with the athlete can take steps to manage it before it worsens. Athletes should also be informed about the consequences of being underweight, as well as the fact that being slim does not help performance. Furthermore, sports scientists, coaches, athletes, and other stakeholders must collaborate on a program that focuses on complete health rather than weight, as weight is a poor predictor of overall health, particularly in athletes who are larger due to muscle mass. They should also stop making thoughtless remarks or mocking athletes. Coaches also have a role to play in supporting players in overcoming the likelihood of developing eating disorders. When they guarantee that weight concerns are not exploited as a means of criticizing athletes’ performances, athletes will be more likely to feel comfortable adjusting to healthy eating habits.

Screening and Treatment

It is difficult to diagnose eating disorders because most people try to hide their eating patterns, deny feeling an inclination to consume specific meals, or limit their consumption of certain foods. Screening, on the other hand, makes it simpler for an observer to spot the symptoms of some eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa. Screening programs can only assist in determining what steps should be taken once an athlete has been diagnosed with an eating issue (Joy et al., 2016). However, it is critical to approach the athlete directly in the early phases of the condition and keep the information gathered throughout the screening procedure discreet (Wagner et al., 2016). Consequently, any athlete diagnosed with an eating disorder following screening must get help from appropriate stakeholders in order to overcome the illness.

Eating disorders and eating-related issues can be treated in a variety of ways. Different health practitioners may be required to participate in the therapy due to the wide range of symptoms that individuals may encounter. General doctors, pediatricians, psychiatrists, dietitians/nutritionists, psychologists/therapists, nurses, social workers, and occupational therapists are among the most common members of the treatment team. Furthermore, some people may need nutritional therapy to help them recognize their food phobias and develop good eating habits as well as a knowledge of the implications of not eating adequately. Individual, group, and family therapy with a trained therapist may be used as part of psychological treatment.


Eating disorders are prevalent, but they can have major consequences for athletes’ careers. They can have an impact on an athlete’s overall body shape and performance in a sport. Eating disorders can also make an athlete more prone to injuries and have a negative impact on their performance. Athletes, in collaboration with coaches and medics, can put in place preventative measures. However, if an athlete is revealed to have an eating disorder through screening, there is a therapeutic procedure in place to help the athlete reestablish appropriate eating habits.


Chapman, J., & Woodman, T. (2016). Disordered eating in male athletes: a metaanalysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(2), 101-109.

de Bruin, A. P., & Oudejans, R. R. (2018). Athletes’ body talk: The role of contextual body image in eating disorders as seen through the eyes of elite women athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 12(4), 675-698.

Mehler, P. S., & Andersen, A. E. (2017). Eating disorders: A guide to medical care and complications. Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press.

Wagner, A. J., Erickson, C. D., Tierney, D. K., Houston, M. N., & Bacon, C. E. W. (2016). The diagnostic accuracy of screening tools to detect eating disorders in female athletes. Journal of sport rehabilitation, 25(4), 395-398.


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