Eating Disorders in Athletes

Eating disorders commonly exist among athletes, especially those involved in sports that place great emphasis on the athlete to be thin. Sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, dancing, and synchronized swimming have a higher percentage of athletes with eating disorders, than sports such as basketball, skiing and volleyball. According to a 1992 American College of Sports Medicine study, eating disorders affected 62 percent of females in sports like figure skating and gymnastics. Famous gymnasts Kathy Johnson, Nadia Comaneci and Cathy Rigby have all admitted to fighting eating disorders. Cathy Rigby, a 1972 Olympian, battled anorexia and bulimia for 12 years. She went into cardiac arrest on two occasions as a result of it.

Female athletes with a genetic predisposition to eating disorders may develop them as a result of restricting calories in an attempt to be thin. They may do so in order to please coaches and judges, or because they believe that it allows them a competitive advantage. Comments from coaches pertaining to body weight can potentially cause an athlete to resort to dangerous methods of weight control. Such practices also can cause serious emotional damage to the athlete.

In sports where athletes are judged by technical and artistic merit, they can feel enormous pressure to be thin. Many judges consider thinness to be an important factor when deciding the artistic score. In 1988, at a meet in Budapest, a US judge told Christy Henrich, one of the world’s top gymnasts, that she was too fat and needed to lose weight if she hoped to make the Olympic squad. Christy resorted to anorexia and bulimia as a way to control her weight, and her eating disorders eventually took her life. Christy Henrich died at the age of 22 of multiple organ failure.

Athletes with eating disorders can be at a higher risk for medical complications such as electrolyte imbalances and cardiac arrhythmias. They are already engaging in strenuous physical activity and putting a lot of pressure on their bodies. Having an eating disorder increases the risk of sudden death due to cardiac arrest. It is usually difficult to convince athletes that they are in need of help because they usually believe that they will become a better athlete, and perform better, if they lose more weight. Gymnastics is one sport where the size of the gymnast has gotten drastically smaller over the years.

For Coaches and Trainers

Coaches and trainers should educate themselves on the dangers and on the signs to look for in an athlete who may be suffering from an eating disorder. They must be able to recognize when healthy training routines turn into an obsession where the athlete turns to drastic measures to become thin and succeed in their sport. Coaches should also bring in nutrition experts to educate the athletes on healthy eating and to make them aware of how important it is to eat properly, especially when involved in such intense training. Counseling should also be made available to athletes that are suffering from eating disorders and they should be encouraged and supported to accept the help available to them. They need to be assured that they will not be criticized or looked down on if they do come forward with their problem.

Here is more on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder.

For Parents

For parents who are putting their child into a competitive sport, it is important to find a coach who is aware of the dangers of eating disorders and will not put too much pressure on the child. Coaches should encourage and help the athlete to maintain a healthy routine that will not put them at risk of harming themselves. Resorting to dangerous methods of weight control to try and succeed and win competitions can be a great risk to long term health. No gold medal is worth dying for.

The Female Athlete Triad

The female athlete triad refers to three distinct and interrelated health concerns sometimes seen in women driven to excel in athletics. Those health concerns include disordered eating of some sort (such as eating far too little or binging and purging), amenorrhea (irregular menstrual periods or lack of menstruation) and osteoporosis (low bone density due to excessive exercise and lack of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D). Women that participate in activities like gymnastics, ballet and figuring skating are at increased risk for the female athlete triad, just as they are at increased risk for eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. Early recognition and treatment is imperative to prevent life-threatening complications.

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Additional Reading:

Intuitive Movement
Female Athlete Triad
Excessive Exercise
Falling into a Fitness Obsession in Eating Disorder Recovery


A good resource for athletes and coaches alike is the NEDA Coach and Trainer toolkit.

American College of Sports Medicine

Updated by Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 1997