The Scary Truth Behind Athletes and Eating Disorders

Athletes are often viewed as extremely strong and fit individuals — the ultimate picture of health. The sad truth is, though, that many are hurting their bodies through anorexia and bulimia in order to shed weight and improve their performance. Athletes and eating disorders are a dangerous combination that is often overlooked or swept under the rug. If left untreated, however, it’s a dangerous combination that can lead to serious health consequences down the road.

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia among athletes is more common than most people think. According to several studies of college athletes, nearly one in three female athletes has some type of eating disorder. Female athletes participating in sports in which they’re judged on how their body looks or in which they wear revealing uniforms are more at risk, including those who participate in dance, cheerleading, gymnastics and figure skating. But females aren’t the only ones at risk; many male athletes also suffer from eating disorders. Regardless of sex, athletes who participate in sports that emphasize appearance or weight or that focus on the individual rather than the team are more likely to engage in risky behavior. These sports include diving, swimming, bodybuilding, running and track and field. Perhaps the most common sport in which athletes engage in anorexia or bulimia, but one that is often overlooked, is wrestling. Wrestlers are constantly shedding and gaining pounds in order to fit within a certain weight class. Often these practices include severe caloric reduction and even purging of food, which can lead to severe dehydration and other complications. In 1997, the extreme and unsafe methods of weight reduction among wrestlers gained national attention when three college wrestlers died within 32 days of one another due to cardiorespiratory death after they tried to make weight for a competition.

While the pressure to lose weight is many times a personal conflict, athletes are often encouraged by their coaches to start dieting in order to enhance their performance. Losing weight as a runner, for example, might make the athlete lighter and faster, while a gymnast could improve her scores by presenting a more lean and toned physique. Weight loss can initially improve performance, but if taken too far or for long periods of time it can actually hinder performance. Athletes with eating disorders can suffer from fatigue, weakness, stress fractures and depleted muscles, and often have a higher risk of medical complications because they are putting their body through extremely strenuous activity. This can lead to more serious complications, such as electrolyte imbalances, cardiac arrhythmias and even death. One of the most famous athletes to die from an eating disorder was Christy Henrich, a world-class gymnast in the late ’80s who was told that in order to make the 1988 Olympic team she would have to lose weight. At 4’10” and already only 90 pounds, Henrich began a long battle with anorexia that ultimately led to her death in 1994 due to multiple organ failure. She only weighed 60 pounds at the time of her death.

Luckily, there are many warning signs that an athlete is suffering from an eating disorder. In addition to the usual symptoms of extreme dieting, excessive weight loss, chronic fatigue and light-headedness, athletes with eating disorders will often withdraw from teammates, exercise excessively outside of normal practice time and may be unable to complete normal workouts due to fatigue or weakness. Coaches and trainers can play a pivotal role in preventing athletes and eating disorders by educating themselves and their athletes on the warning signs and dangers of eating disorders and how proper nutrition is key to a strong body.