The Silence of Eating Disorders Amongst Athletes

August 26, 2022

By: Myeisha Brooks, LMFT, PMH-C

It is no surprise that Athletes are faced with several challenges both on and off the field. Studies have shown that participation in elite athletics increases the risk of the development of an eating disorder or exacerbates an existing eating disorder. Participation in athletics while navigating everyday life presents itself with its own unique challenges. Athletes are particularly faced with stressors ranging from the pressures to maintain high academic performance, remain physically fit, maintain weight requirements, meet the pressures of cultural standards and societal standards in an environment that also promotes competitiveness, thinness, and perfectionism. These factors largely contribute to the suffering in silence of someone who may be struggling with an eating disorder and participated in athletics.

    Eating disorders are unique in the sense that they can go unnoticed. Many who are struggling with an eating disorder struggle in silence. Eating Disorders, specifically Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all mental disorders and female athletes are almost twice as likely than male athletes to suffer from an eating disorder. Someone struggling with eating disorder can go on throughout their daily routines remaining active in their academics, places of employment, in social settings with friends and perhaps with teammates on the field without anyone noticing. 

     How does something so deadly go unnoticed in a space where there is so much exposure?  To answer this question, we also have to confront the systems in place in elite athletics. In many cases the weight requirements can trigger disordered eating and/or body image issues. Due to the pressures to meet requirements athletes may feel an immense about of pressure to meet requirements through controlling their food intake and weight by engaging in disordered eating behaviors and/or overexercising.  Some behaviors that are common are restricting at meals, purging/vomiting of food, calorie counting or weighing of food, body checking, constant or excessive weigh ins, and the use of diuretics. All of which can be done in secrecy. The exposure of the engagement in the behaviors typically only happens if the person engaging in them shares them or someone witnesses them as they are occurring. So, in part, to answer this question, it can go unnoticed because ultimately and eating disorder can be extremely powerful and can in many ways dictate when it would like to be seen. Eating disorders are multifaceted, so this is not the only reason it can go unnoticed, as there are several, but it can be a common reason. In addition to this you may also notice that someone struggling with an eating disorder may also be concurrently struggling with poor body image.  

In elite athletics its no secret that it is important to stay physically fit. Typically, there are strength requirements, weight requirements, body shape requirements, and nutrition requirements that are said to be essential for optimal performance. With all of these requirements and stressors to maintain and adhere to these requirements many struggling with an eating disorder often begin to struggle more. Some things you may notice are an increase in restrictive behaviors, over exercising, and an increase in engagement in unhealthy behaviors exacerbating symptoms of the eating disorder. The cumulative impact of this can also lead to an increase in feelings of body dissatisfaction and perfectionism. 

   Being an athlete and coping with an eating disorder is the ultimate struggle. To be tasked with coping with an eating disorder while maintaining all requirements to be an athlete can be exhausting and can create an increase in other mental health disorders like anxiety, panic disorder, depression, body dysmorphia, and suicidality to name a few. It can be an unsafe space for someone struggling with an eating disorder to engage in athletics without the proper supports. Some supports that can be helpful when supporting one’s journey with athletics while healing from an eating disorder can begin with acknowledging that the struggle of having an eating disorder is present., providing and at times linking individuals with trained mental health providers who can provide support, assisting those who are struggling with eating disorders with finding support groups, ensuring that those struggling with an eating disorder have proper medical monitoring/ medical supports, and nutritional guidance.

If you or someone you know are struggling with maintaining your performance in athletics while coping with an eating disorder it can be imperative that you familiarize yourself with some warning signs for eating disorders. Here are a few, but not an exhaustive list: Changes in eating habits or appearance, isolation from friends and/or family, increased focus on weight, insecurities surrounding body image, hair loss, self esteem being dependent on body image, and guilt or shame surrounding eating. 

     It is important to note that if you or someone you know are suffering from an eating disorder there are many resources available. You do not have to suffer alone, there are supports available and it is encouraged that you reach out for support when you need it and when you are ready. It is not easy to admit to yourself or others that you are struggling. It is important to acknowledge that you will need to be patient with yourself as you heal. Some things to consider when telling someone you have an eating disorder are to be patient with yourself and others, be clear and direct about how someone can support you, ask for support when you are ready, and choose the right time/place to seek support. It is important to note that when treating an eating disorder, you are also treating a human. It may take a village to obtain the support you or someone you know may need and that village can include professional ranging from mental health clinicians, dieticians, psychiatrists, and physicians. When treating eating disorders, it is important to ensure that someone suffering from an eating disorder receives the supports that they need to help them through their road to recovery. Recovery is possible for any one suffering from an eating disorder even in an environment like athletics where it can be the breading ground for the development of one.

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