eating disorders in sport

In light of eating disorders, when it comes to physical activity and competitive sport, one would think it is those adolescents NOT participating in any physical activity to have a poor self-esteem and body image issues. Isn’t exercise the age-old secret to weight loss and a stunning body?

It has been reported that both males and females that engage in competitive physical activities such as sports, fitness, dance and modelling present with high levels of body dissatisfaction, unhealthy eating patterns and eating disorders. High performance sports have been identified as a potential risk factor for eating disorders.

The categories in the sporting environment that play an important role in influencing how athletes perceive their own bodies include:

Appearance sports: gymnastics, synchronised swimming, figure skating and ballet

Low body fat sports: distance running, body building

Weight category sport: rowing, jockeys and wrestling.

In adolescents, it is said that 70% of boys and girls are dissatisfied with their body image and that eating disorders is the 3rd most common chronic illness in young females.


Going through this transitional phase of life, adolescents are very sensitive and self- conscious of the changes in their bodies and often believe that sports performance is directly affected by his/her body type. The desire to be leaner, stronger or faster to improve sports performance is associated with changes in healthy eating patterns (dieting), also referred to as: disordered eating.

What are the risk factors of unhealthy eating patterns / disordered eating

  • Gender, early onset of puberty, genetics
  • Personality: perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, stress or trauma
  • Involvement in sport which emphasises a specific body type eg thin body, shape, size
  • Pressure from society, peers or family to perform and succeed
  • Establishing their self-worth on the ideal of being thin, muscular or lean.

What are the signs of unhealthy eating patterns / disordered eating

  • Poor sports performance: tiredness, weakness, dizziness.
  • Poor academic performance : poor concentration, headaches
  • Changes in behaviour: depressed, stressed, anxious, irritable, withdrawing
  • Changes in weight / rapid weight loss
  • Restricted eating: avoiding certain foods, especially fats or carbohydrates.
  • Suddenly disliking food that were usually enjoyed
  • Skipping meals or eating in private (bedroom)
  • Changes in behaviour regarding food : anxious at meal times, preoccupied with food and body shape, strongly opinionated towards which  foods are good and bad.
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom  after meals
  • Laxative / Diuretic misuse
  • Use of supplements (steroids/creatine)to enhance performance and alter physical appearance (diet pills)
  • Menstrual dysfunction

What can be done to help a young athlete that may have an eating disorder


  • Focusing too much on food
  • Discussions of improved sports-performance in terms of weight. Rather focus strength, flexibility, conditioning, mental and emotional coping skills
  • Public comparisons of weight and body measurements
  • Giving too much advice – just listen

Focus on:

  • Creating an environment where the adolescent feel safe to talk about how they feel and the  issues that’re troublesome
  • Listen
  • Encouraging healthy living and healthy eating. Understand that weight is a sensitive issue.
  • Being supportive, positive and encouraging
  • Involving the family – when the problem is serious
  • Seeking professional help. An eating disorder has severe psychological and medical consequences if not treated correctly.