Help for Anorexia and Bulimia and All Eating Disorders

Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center

International Eating Disorder Referral Organization


Athletes and Eating Disorders   

Sports that require weight control and/or thinness can place their participants at risk for an eating disorder. There is a significant amount of pressure placed on athletes to perform at the highest level - at all costs. The dangers of this mindset can be enormous.  Coaches and trainers must be informed and alert to the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in their athletes. Those closest to the athlete are in a unique position to provide positive guidance and promote healthy body image and self-esteem. While there are particular sports that place athletes at a higher risk, it is important to always be conscience of the messages we present our young male and female athletes.

Examples of "High Risk" sports:

bulletBody Building
bulletFigure Skating
bulletLong distance running

At Risk Facts for Athletes:

bulletPerfectionistic tendencies, competitiveness, and fear of failure
bulletPressure from coaches and parents
bulletStrong desire to please coaches and judges
bulletMisconceptions about body size and shape as it related to "peak performance" (i.e. weight loss will enhances one's performance, lean is mean, body fat is unacceptable, etc.)
bulletOver-emphasis or focus on external appearance (i.e. costumes uniforms, etc.)
bulletCritical eye of judges and subjective nature of some judging in competitions (i.e. judging on technical and artistic merit, etc.)
bulletMedia messages about health and body shape size (i.e.-thin means healthy; thinness means success, etc.)

Medical Issues:

bulletElectrolyte imbalances
bulletCardiac arrhythmia and increased risk of cardiac arrest
bulletSevere dehydration and fatigue
bulletMuscle weakness and loss
bulletKidney failure

For Coaches:

bulletEducate oneself on the dangers of eating disorders (i.e. what are signs and symptoms, what are the current resources in place at the school, community, etc.)
bulletExplore your own attitudes toward weight, dieting, body image, etc.
bulletWatch for signs and symptoms of eating disorders; prevention and recognizing symptoms in early onset are vital keys to avoiding serious medical and psychological problems.
bulletEmphasize improving performance and mental and emotional strength versus weight.
bulletRecognize when training routines are obsessive and unhealthy.
bulletLook for signs in which an athlete may be turning to extreme or drastic measures to be thin or succeed in their sport at the risk of their health.
bulletConsult with and use nutrition experts to educate athletes on healthy eating.
bulletFocus on the importance of eating properly.
bulletEncourage counseling when needed.
bulletBe supportive.  Do not be critical if an athlete does come forward with their problem.
bulletPraise the athlete and be proud of them no matter what place they finish in a competition.

When approaching an athlete you suspect may have an eating disorder do so privately. Provide evidence of your concerns with specific behaviors you have noticed. Reassure the athlete that you want to assist in any way you can. Alleviate any concerns the athlete may have about losing their position on the team, etc.  Do not back down when you have concerns, tell the athlete you feel the matter needs to be addressed with someone who understands eating disorders.  Do not be afraid to make this a requirement - it can save a life! Adapted from Eating Disorder Awareness and Prevention, EDAP (1998),, Athletes and Eating Disorders.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and are presented without editing. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or the policy of, and no official endorsement by of the opinions expressed herein should be inferred.

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*We cannot diagnose or treat eating disorders by email, but we can send you information and assist you in finding resources. Information provided by the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center is not a substitute for medical treatment or psychological care.  It is vital that you talk with your physician and a qualified mental health professional regarding eating disorder symptoms and treatment.

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