Eating disorders and athletes

Last Modified: 2/09/2022

eating disorders and athletes

There’s no doubt that athletics are great for the mind and body. They not only promote physical fitness but also help build self-esteem and show the value of teamwork. However, not all athletic stressors are positive. An emphasis on body weight, shape, performance and the pressure to win can create an unhealthy atmosphere for athletes striving for perfection. In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, we asked Laura Oyer, PhD, HSSP, psychologist, Park Center Eating Disorders Program, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute, to discuss what eating disorders are, the unique challenges athletes face and where to turn for help.

Eating disorders defined

Eating disorders are complex mental and physical health conditions. They often cause unhealthy habits in relation to food, body weight or shape and can cause functional impairment in various areas of life, including:

  • Cognitive
  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Social
  • Sport performance

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), college athletes have an elevated risk of developing an eating disorder. One study found the number of college athletes at-risk for developing Anorexia Nervosa was 35% for females and 10% for males. The number at-risk for developing Bulimia Nervosa was 58% for females and 38% for males. Additionally, while most athletes with eating disorders are female, male athletes are also at risk, especially those competing in sports that focus on an athlete’s diet, appearance, size and weight requirements.

Warning signs and symptoms

The earlier an eating disorder is detected, the chance for recovery increases. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of the emotional, behavioral and physical signs including, but not limited to the following:

  • Overly focused on weight, diet and calories
  • More frequent muscle strains, sprains and/or fractures
  • Uncomfortable eating around others
  • Skipping meals, eating small or larger portions
  • Eating in secret
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Excessive exercise
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Slowed heart rate and low blood pressure
  • Change in athletic performance
  • Visiting the bathroom directly after meals
  • Weight loss or gain (not always)

Additionally, someone struggling with an eating disorder may not exhibit all the warning signs at once, but the following behaviors could indicate a problem.

Assessing an eating disorder

The SCOFF questionnaire is a screening comprised of five questions to help assess the possible presence of an eating disorder. Answering “yes” to two or more of the following questions can indicate a possible case of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or other eating disorder and may warrant further assessment:

  • S = Do you make yourself Sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
  • C = Do you worry you have lost Control over how much you eat?
  • O = Have you recently lost more than One stone (about 14 lbs.) in a three-month period?
  • F = Do you believe yourself to be Fat when others say you are too thin?
  • F = Would you say Food dominates your life?
When to seek help

It can be challenging to manage or overcome an eating disorder on your own. If you or a loved one are experiencing any problems, need support or think you may have an eating disorder, please call 260-481-2700 and request an Eating Disorder Initial Assessment.

For immediate mental health care concerns, call the Parkview Behavioral Health Helpline at 260-373-7500 or 800-284-8439 anytime, 24/7.


Helpful resources

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

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