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The Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Young Athletes

Eating disorders in student and young women athletes

Sports can have many positive benefits for the athlete, but for some athletes, especially teen and college-aged athletes, eating disorders are prevalent. It is estimated that 62 percent of females who participate in “appearance sports,” including gymnastics, dancing, figure skating and diving suffer from an eating disorder. Athletes who participate in endurance sports such as running or cycling are also thought to be at greater risk of an eating disorder.

There are specific personality traits that performance athletes often possess. Many times, athletes are perfectionists or overachievers, and they are often competitive and even compulsive. Many of these traits may predispose an athlete to developing an eating disorder. The combination of these personality traits and the pressure to perform, pressure from coaches, parents and even fans can be dangerous.

In many sports, weight can be a limiting factor. The thinner an athlete, the better he or she may be able to perform. Athletes who participate in appearance sports are often judged by how thin they are. Judges and coaches have even been known to tell athletes they need to lose weight.

In order to lose weight, many athletes go to the extreme. They may severely restrict their diet, eating far too few calories, purge or even turn to laxatives and diuretics to help lose weight. When coupled with hours of physical training each day, athletes who struggle with eating disorders are at risk of serious complications or even death.

One-third of female college athletes report disordered eating, but it is not always easily recognized. As with any individual struggling with anorexia, bulimia or compulsive overeating, eating disorders are often held in secrecy. Simply because an athlete does not look extremely thin does not mean they are not secretly suffering an eating disorder.

Coaches and parents of teenage and college-aged athletes should be on the lookout for eating disorders among their athletes. Signs of an eating disorder may include:

  • Restrictive dieting
  • Purging
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Withdrawal and/or depression
  • Avoiding eating in front of others
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of menstrual cycle
  • Change in mood
  • Loss of concentration
  • Intolerance of cold

The pressure to perform can be extreme and some teen and college aged athletes may not be prepared to deal with that pressure in a healthy manner.

If you suspect your child or athlete is suffering from bulimia, anorexia or another eating disorder, seek professional help immediately from an eating disorders treatment center.