The Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Professional Athletes

Learn about the causes, prevalence, and treatment options for eating disorders in athletes in this comprehensive article.

Table of Contents

How Do Eating Disorders Affect Professional Athletes?

Eating disorders are mental health conditions characterized by unhealthy eating habits to lose or gain weight. They are often caused by harmful beliefs regarding body image, weight, and food. Due to the mental and physical intensity of training and performance, eating disorders in athletes are more prevalent.

Athletes commonly share similar eating disorder traits, such as perfectionism, compulsiveness, and hyperactivity. These characteristics can influence excessive exercise and unhealthy dieting practices. According to a study in 2004, elite athletes (13.5%) were more likely to have an eating disorder compared to the general public (4.9%).1

To provide athletes with the right coaching and preventative support, we need to understand the risks they face.
Eating Disorders in Athletes

Questions About Treatment?

Let us guide you through your options and treatment opportunities. Contact Alternative Options today.

Causes of Eating Disorders in Athletes

The pressures and physical demands of being an athlete can take a serious toll on the mind and body. For instance, 30.7% of NCAA athletes reported body dissatisfaction, weight preoccupation, and bulimic tendencies.2

The following are some of the causes of eating disorders in athletes:
  • Competitive, High-Pressure Environment: Some sports emphasize muscularity, weight requirements, and appearance.
  • Lower Weight, Better Performance: There is an overvalued belief that a reduced body weight helps improve performance.
  • Rigorous Coaching: Some coaches focus more on performance and success than the athletes’ health.
  • Strict Diets: Individuals participating in endurance sports tend to undergo strict diets.
  • Culture: Some cultures can influence body shape and eating habits.
  • Performance Enhancement: Some athletes may practice unhealthy eating habits as a way to enhance performance. 
  • Societal Pressure: Standards in society can pressure athletes to look a certain way.
  • Training Since Childhood: Training, dieting, and competition during childhood can influence stricter diets, exercise routines, and pressure.

Sports That Can Influence Eating Disorders in Athletes

While participation in sports promotes fair play and physical conditioning, it has some stressors. The following are some of the leading sports that contribute to eating disorders in athletes:


Eating disorders in gymnasts have been prevalent for decades. Gymnasts are often judged on their appearance and body shape. Additionally, coaches may encourage them to lose weight or change their body composition to perform better. One survey found that 35% of gymnasts within the healthy weight range wanted to lose an average of eleven pounds. Of the same gymnasts, 12% were told by their coaches to lose weight.3

Gymnastics has historically been a sport that strongly emphasizes discipline, perfection, and control. This culture can contribute to the development of perfectionistic tendencies and obsessive behavior, including obsessive thoughts about food and weight.


Bodybuilding significantly emphasizes physical appearance, muscle mass, and body fat percentage. This focus on body image and physical performance can lead to eating disorders. Bodybuilders are often required to maintain a specific body weight or body fat percentage to compete or meet personal goals. This can result in a preoccupation with food, calories, and macronutrient intake. They may also engage in extreme dieting or restrictive eating behaviors to achieve their desired body composition.4

Bodybuilding culture can normalize disordered eating habits. For example, strict dieting, binge eating, or purging. Bodybuilders may also feel pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs, increasing the risk of eating disorders.


Swimmers are required to maintain a lean physique and compete at a high level. They often have an intense training schedule, such as long hours in the pool, strength training, and cardio workouts.

The pressure to perform and meet the expectations of coaches and teammates can create stress and anxiety. This can make swimmers more vulnerable to eating disorders. Swimmers may also face unique challenges related to their sport. For example, swimming requires wearing revealing clothing, which can affect body consciousness.

Effective Treatments for Eating Disorders in Athletes

There are various options available for treating eating disorders in athletes. The following includes effective treatments and methods athletes can pursue:
  • Medical Management: Eating disorders can have significant physical consequences. So, it is important to monitor and manage any complications that may arise. Medical management may include regular check-ups with a physician and consultations with specialists.
  • Nutritional Counseling: Nutrition is a critical component of treatment for eating disorders in athletes. Nutritional counseling can help athletes develop a healthy relationship with food. It can also teach how to fuel their bodies for optimal performance.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can effectively treat eating disorders in athletes. It focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors related to food and body image.
  • Family-Based Therapy: Family-based therapy can be particularly effective for adolescent athletes. This approach involves family members in the treatment process. It aims to restore healthy eating patterns and family relationships.
  • Medication: In some cases, medical professionals may prescribe medication to manage symptoms of co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Support Groups: Support groups can provide a sense of community for athletes in recovery from eating disorders. They can help maintain goals, express emotions, and remember that they are not alone.
Eating Disorders in Athletes

Treat Your Eating Disorders at Alternative Options

Eating disorders in athletes are a prevalent issue. These disorders can have severe physical and mental consequences. Thus, they affect athletes’ performance and well-being. It is crucial to understand the risks associated with eating disorders in athletes. We must provide them with the right support and coaching to prevent their development.

Getting treatment for eating disorders is essential to help athletes recover and lead healthy lives. Alternative Options is a treatment center specializing in eating disorders. We offer various programs to help individuals cope with and manage eating disorders.

What We Offer

We provide residential, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs. Our practice involves a combination of evidence-based therapies. Some examples include CBT, nutrition counseling, and family therapy, to help individuals achieve and maintain recovery. We follow a personalized approach, developing tailored treatment plans to meet each unique client’s needs.

At Alternative Options, our highly qualified staff provides individuals with the necessary tools and support to overcome their eating disorders and lead positive, fulfilling lives. Contact us today to learn more about our programs and how you can get started on the path to recovery.