Eating disorders in athletes

December 1, 2022

Recently, there has been an increase in awareness surrounding mental health, yet still, it seems as though eating disorders are continuing to be overlooked. It is as if even the mention of them is taboo. What’s even more unsettling ‒‒ the probability of eating disorders in athletes. 

The eating disorders most common in athletics are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. To better understand how such disorders can affect athletes, it is important to understand what they are first. 

Anorexia nervosa is one of the more well-known eating disorders that occurs when an individual purposefully restricts what they eat in effort to lose weight. These individuals obsess about being overweight, but due to their psychological mindset, they often end up being underweight and not even realizing it. Or they realize it, but feel that being underweight is an achievement. 

For people who suffer from bulimia nervosa, they similarly feel the need to lose weight, but instead of restricting what they eat like those who suffer from anorexia nervosa, these individuals choose to eat in excessive amounts, and then go through spurts of self-inflicted vomiting. They still obsess over weight, but choose to rid themselves of the supposed weight in a different way. 

Of course, eating disorders can affect every individual regardless of gender, weight, race, or any other factor, but for athletes who always have the pressure to be in shape, it is a commonality. For example one of the sports that is most heavily affected by the plague that is eating disorders, is cross country. 

Athletes who need to have endurance, or in another way, have to run for long periods of time, are aware of the physical physique they have to abide by. While it is possible to maintain a healthy lifestyle in sports, many often will obsess over it, and in the present day where social media has taken over people’s lives, it is even more prevalent for athletes to compare themselves to their competitors via media outlets. 

Gymnastics as well as cross country, has high rates of athletes who face struggles with eating disorders. While gymnastics doesn’t prioritize endurance in the same way that cross country does, it has its own health triggers that go along with the sport. 

Gymnasts have the incredible challenge of flipping in the air and doing all sorts of stunts that defy gravity in many ways, and in order to accomplish such feats, gymnasts have to be in tip-top shape. For gymnastics in particular, research over multiple decades has shown that those with lower body weight and lower body fat have a higher chance at being elite in rhythmic gymnastics. Therefore, young girls will go to extreme lengths to meet this criteria, so much so that many end up engaging in disordered eating practices. 

For most young gymnasts, they fall into the anorexia nervosa category as they attempt to achieve a dangerous low-calorie diet, whilst practicing for hours a day. What’s even worse, those who are younger in age are more susceptible to establishing unhealthy practices in mental health, and especially in eating. With coaches especially in the elite gymnastics world fueling these dangerous habits, it is setting up young children for a lifetime of serious mental and physical issues. 

However, how does this affect high-school students one might ask. Very few high schoolers will go on to be an Olympian gymnast or a nationally recognized athlete. This does not eliminate common athletes from developing eating disorders though. According to eatingdisorderhope.org, “Among high school students, rates of eating disorders among athletes is higher than non-athletes, with 7.3% of athletes affected and 2.3% of non-athletes impacted.” 

And what most don’t know is that recently in the world of mental health, a new type of disorder has emerged ‒ bigorexia. It is a type of body dysmorphic disorder that commonly affects the male population and by definition, it occurs when an individual obsesses over building muscle. For those who suffer from this disorder, it is common for people to feel pressure from their sport and teammates to look like they are the strongest on the field and with social media platforms only emphasizing this point, more young people are developing this disorder that shares similar qualities to anorexia and bulimia. 

No matter how you look at it, disordered eating is heavily affecting the population, especially athletes, and it is a rising problem in the world. More often than not, fans and coaches want to see the wins in sports that they so desperately desire, but maybe what we should be rooting for is our athletes’ health, because unfortunately, it seems to be on the rapid decline. 

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