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  • Writer's pictureAmy Dougley

Eating Disorders in Athletes

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is defined as a mental health condition that leads a person to overeat, starve themselves, or adopt other unhealthy behaviours related to food and body weight.

What Makes Eating Disorders Unique in Athletes?

Athletes are under pressure to perform and compete. Dietary restrictions, excessive exercise

outside of scheduled conditioning and consuming “healthy foods” are all normal behaviours for someone to be successful. Demands to perform, competitive environments and pressures to look a certain way bring on praise and accomplishment which may increase the struggles the individual is experiencing. For these reasons, eating disorders in athletes can be hard to recognize.

Eating disorders can cause significant medical issues for individuals but there are increased risks for those who are athletes. Specifically, athletes may experience RED-S or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport which occurs when the expenditure of energy exceeds energy intake, creating energy deficiency. Metabolism, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis, cardiovascular health and psychological health are all systems that maybe effected.

If an athlete is following a sport related diet and exercise plan, their goal is improved

performance rather than weight loss or an altered body shape with an emphasis on what needs to be done rather than what is forbidden.


  • A fixation on body weight, shape, or size

  • Counting calories

  • Fear of weight gain

  • Preoccupation with nutritional details

  • Skipping meals or rarely eating

  • Excessive rules surrounding food

  • Low stamina

  • Lethargy

  • Impaired concentration

  • Feelings of shame and guilt about food

  • Not eating in front of others

  • Eating large amounts of food after practices

  • Cuts or marks on fingers (specific to those who suffer from bulimia)

Long Term Effects Include:

  • Metabolism issues

  • Increased risk of athletic injury

  • Poor performance in sport of choice

  • Impaired judgment

  • Decreased coordination

  • Impaired aerobic functioning

  • Organ damage

  • Fertility issues

  • Bone and muscle loss

  • Gastrointestinal issues

  • Dental issues

  • Mental health issues including depression, anxiety, suicide and addiction


Treatment for athletes experiencing eating disorders include;

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT),

  • Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) and,

  • Family Based Treatment.

It is important to support individuals by emphasizing the importance of the person over the sport. Recovery is possible, but it is important that the focus is on themselves rather than their sport for a period of time if one is to return to their sport.

If you are interested in more information around the support available in this situation, feel free to give our office a call. We are able to provide mental health support and we also have a Naturopathic Doctor on our team who has a special interest in supporting athletes as they work towards managing their health and athletic goals.

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