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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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Eating disorder treatment programs for athletes

Many people think of athletes as some of the healthiest individuals, thanks to their regular exercise regimen and often accompanying attention to diet. But someone can become focused on these physical considerations to the point of developing an eating disorder, especially in sports that tend to reward people with certain body types.

For these reasons and more, eating disorders in athletes are more common than many people may imagine. However, there are ways to help these individuals recover from disordered eating or exercise habits.

Last updated on 
January 12, 2024
January 22, 2024
Eating disorders in athletes
In this article

Eating disorders and athletes: What's the connection?

Athletes, especially competitive or professional athletes, often feel undue pressure to perform. They may go to extreme lengths to achieve anything that could be considered an advantage in their given sport. While the determination that gets them there is admirable, it can become problematic when focused on achieving a certain weight or body type that may be considered "ideal" for their sport.

If you or an athlete close to you are looking for help in healing disordered eating behaviors, we are here for you. Call Within Health’s clinical care team to learn more about our remote treatment program for eating disorders.

Get help
 

Athletes may need to be within a weight range to participate in their sport, and others may feel that their performance will peak at a specific weight or body composition. Some sports with higher rates of both male and female athletes with eating disorders include:1

  • Running
  • Judo
  • Boxing
  • Wrestling
  • Gymnastics
  • High board diving
  • Ski jumping

Overall, athletes participating in endurance sports, weight and body composition-related sports, or aesthetic sports have a significantly higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Unfortunately, athletes with eating disorders face even higher mortality rates than non-athletes with these conditions and may be more susceptible to injury.1

Different eating disorders in athletes

While eating disorders of all kinds affect athletes, just as they affect people who don't play sports, certain types of eating disorders in athletes are more common than others.

Exercise bulimia
Anorexia athletica
Exercise addiction

Athletes and eating disorders: Treatment options

Eating disorders are dangerous mental health conditions, but eating disorder behaviors in athletes can be successfully treated through a combination of mental, physical, and emotional interventions.

The four primary concerns when treating eating disorders in athletes include:1
  • Medical stability: Ensuring the patient is not experiencing electrolyte abnormalities, low bone density, anemia, or other indicators of serious physical health issues.
  • Nutritional stability: Establishing sufficient caloric and nutritional levels to maintain a healthy body weight, especially concerning energy expenditure.
  • Abstinence: This includes cutting off disordered behaviors related to eating and exercising and working to re-establish moderation.
  • Psychological functioning: Ensuring the patient is equipped to deal with not only the mental health considerations of their eating disorder but also the specific issues that may arise in the athletic world.

From a psychological point of view, several types of therapy are generally recommended for helping people with eating disorders, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is the leading therapy for bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders. Athletes struggling with eating disorders will likely also benefit from nutritional counseling, meal monitoring, and regular medical check-ins early on in their recovery.4

Those who struggle with excessive exercise may have to take special considerations in mind around regulating their workout schedule. Additional experts should be consulted to help ensure someone is moving their body in a healthy way and not putting themselves in a position for relapse.

Finding treatment for athletes with eating disorders

Anyone can develop eating disorders, including athletes from beginners to elite athletes. In fact, in some cases, athletes may face more risk factors for experiencing these conditions than non-athletes.

Still, eating disorders in female athletes, male athletes, and gender nonconforming athletes alike can be treated with thoughtful care programs.

At Within Health, we pride ourselves on helping to create these types of programs for anyone struggling with these conditions. Our multidisciplinary team designs individual treatment plans based on someone's medical history and current needs, and our program can be followed entirely remotely through our convenient app.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, you can contact us today to find out more about how we can help.
Get help

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Currie, A. (2010). Sport and eating disorders - understanding and managing the risks. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 1(2), 63–68.
  2. Exercise Bulimia. (n.d.). The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland. Accessed November 2023. 
  3. Compulsive exercise. (2018, February 22). National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved February 28, 2022.
  4. Vasiliu, O. (2023). Current trends and perspectives in the exploration of anorexia athletica-clinical challenges and therapeutic considerations. Frontiers in Nutrition, 10, 1214398.
  5. Freimuth, M., Moniz, S., & Kim, S. R. (2011). Clarifying exercise addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8(10), 4069–4081.
  6. Murphy, R., Straebler, S., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3), 611–627.

FAQs

How can we prevent eating disorders in athletes?

Preventing eating disorders in athletes can be tricky, as many athletes believe certain body shapes or weights are more beneficial to their performance. Coaches and fellow team members may also push these ideas, so one of the best ways to prevent eating disorders in athletes is to promote more education about what constitutes healthy and unhealthy eating habits and levels of exercise.

Coaches must also be educated in these designations, as well as ways to spot eating disorders, to help them guide athletes in need of help to further treatment.

What are some physical consequences of eating disorders in athletes?

Athletes already put a lot of demand on their bodies. Those with eating disorders may experience many additional physical consequences because of this, including menstruation cycle complications, lower bone mineral density in female athletes, and a higher risk of injury for all athletes.1,4

How common are eating disorders in athletes?

Comprehensive research on the subject is hard to come by, but tests that have been done show that eating disorders in athletes are common.

One study on eating disorders in female athletes found that up to 11% struggled with anorexia nervosa, 36% struggled with bulimia nervosa, and as many as 68% struggled with an eating disorder not otherwise specified.1

For male athletes, those numbers were lower but still striking, with 17% reportedly struggling with bulimia nervosa and 38% with an eating disorder not otherwise specified.1

What causes eating disorders in athletes?

There are many reasons why athletes may struggle with eating disorders, just as there are many reasons why non-athletes develop these conditions. However, athletes may face additional factors that can make them more likely to develop an eating disorder.

Intense competition can drive athletes to fixate on things like their workout routine or diet. Some athletes may believe certain weights or body shapes will help them, so they may become even more fixated on achieving them. Many athletes already participate in extensive exercise routines, so it can be difficult to determine if they're struggling with exercise addiction or other disordered behaviors.1

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