The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Hungry for Gold: The Hidden Epidemic of Disordered Eating Among Athletes

Olympic medals

Eating disorders affect 5 to 10 million men and women, so it is no wonder that athletes are not immune to developing one.


The 2008 Olympic Games remind so many of us what we enjoy about sports – the excitement, the competition, the love of the game. For many, underneath, there are secret obsessions, including  disordered eating or eating disorders that some  athletes use to “stay in the game,” when in reality, they are harming themselves and ultimately their sports performance through their eating behaviors.

Those particularly at risk are athletes who compete in judged sports where they are required to wear revealing uniforms or costumes. These generally include sports like gymnastics, diving, figure skating, etc. but an eating disorder can affect an athlete competing in any sport. This silent wave of disordered eating seems to come from the dual pressures to not only perform well, but also the pressure  look good while competing, especially when the event is televised.

Certain sports carry individual expectations (and sometimes stereotypes), of weight, body size and shape that can be hard to achieve. For example,  basketball players are often  tall and  lean, distance runners are expected to be thin, jockeys are thought to be short, and so on.  At times athletes can go to extreme lengths  to reach these expectations, and not without consequences.

The practices of disordered eating and exercise abuse in athletes can lead to health problems, such as decreased immunity, loss of bone density, stress fractures, menstrual irregularities, overuse injuries, and the list goes on…

Because athletes often appear to have things so “together” on the outside, it can be  difficult for outsiders to pick up on disordered eating and the underlying health issues. For this reason, and because of their power and influence, coaches may be the most important factor in promoting or preventing poor eating and training habits in athletes. Thus, it is especially important for coaches to be able to  identify the signs of disordered eating early so that athletes who need treatment  can get it when the likelihood of success is at its highest.

In a previous entry, Dr. Ron Thompson sheds some light on key signs to look for when trying to identify an athlete with an eating disorder or disordered eating. In that same entry, Dr. Thompson offers advice to athletes and coaches on how to minimize the risk of creating or developing unhealthy food relationships.

If you think you or someone you care about may be showing signs or symptoms of an eating disorder, take this quiz. Or, if you prefer, you can call the Center for Eating Disorders at 410-938-5252 to speak with someone in confidence about any questions or concerns you may have.

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