Castlewood Eating Disorder Treatment Center Blog

How Do Eating Disorders Affect Athletes?

There is no group of people exempt from the risk of eating disorders—and that includes athletes. At first, this may seem a bit surprising. After all, participation in an organized sport can offer many benefits—benefits like positive self-esteem, body image, and a general sense of empowerment—that can combat eating disorders. But there’s another side of the coin, and for some individuals, athletics can contribute significant levels of physical and psychological stress, which can, in turn, either exacerbate eating disorder tendencies or aide in the develop of an eating disorder. In fact, there are many eating disorder risk factors for athletes. Any sport that emphasizes appearance or comes with a weight requirement, such as wrestling, gymnastics, diving, or bodybuilding, can come with a higher risk for eating disorders. The same is true for sports that are more individual-rather than team-focused, like figure skating or running. None of this is to say, however, that an eating disorder is a foregone conclusion for athletes in these sports, nor that there aren’t plenty of things coaches, parents, and team members can do to create a supportive and nurturing environment. In fact, there are several ways in which individuals who may be at high risk for an eating disorders can be supported. It all starts with the coaching. Coaches who focus on the growth of the person, not the performance, can mitigate a lot of that pressure that so often exacerbates eating disorders. Emphasis on good health as opposed to body weight is also important. Certainly, coaches should encourage a healthy and balanced approach to nutrition—not fasting, purging, or overdoing it. A supportive team dynamic can also be helpful, especially when team members are educated about the signs of eating disorders and talk candidly with one another about these issues. Being able to identify the warning signs and feeling comfortable reaching out to a team member with concern and compassion is huge. The parents of athletes can get involved with this, too. Do some reading on eating disorders—the Castlewood blog is a good starting point—and be prepared to talk to your young athletes about their relationship with food and their body as well as how your athlete can contribute to a team dynamic of support and encouragement. Ultimately, early intervention is the best way to keep athletes safe against eating disorders—so know what you are up against, and what you can do should you ever encounter an eating disorder in a sports context. Tell us your story! Connect with us on Facebook.