Athletes and Eating Disorders

Introduction by Travis Stewart, LPC, NCC, McCallum Place

Why Athletes Need Specialized Eating Disorder Treatment

While speaking at the Eating Disorders in Sport 2018 Conference hosted by The Victory Program at McCallum Place, Patrick Devenny spoke of the pressure to perform and the toll it takes on athletes. A former NCAA Division I football player, Devenny felt overwhelmed as he prepared for being evaluated by NFL scouts on Pro Day. In an interview with Born Fitness he talked further about this experience:

“I became obsessed about my body,” he says. “By the time I had my Pro Day, I had to be perfect. You walk into a room full of scouts and you’re shirtless and they’re grabbing every inch of your body, measuring body fat, measuring your hands, doing all this stuff, so in the months leading up to that I knew I had to present this image that would blow them away.”

Devenney coped with these pressures through disordered eating and dangerous behaviors.

Living in a culture that idealizes a fit body shape, praises self-control over diet, and rewards perfectionism can trigger many individuals to pursue eating disorder behaviors as a way to create a sense of safety, accomplishment and emotional regulation. This is true for athletes and non-athletes alike.

Additionally, athletes may feel extra pressure that results in restricting, purging or over-exercise. These pressures include revealing uniforms, expectations to fit the norms of a specific sport or the belief that weight loss will increase the chances to win, excel, or earn a scholarship to college.

Historically, athletes who sought treatment for an eating disorder were given a difficult choice: choose your sport or recovery. Many clinical treatment providers were doubtful that an athlete could return to sport and remain healthy. Unfortunately, many athletes rejected treatment or completed treatment but returned to their sport feeling unprepared to navigate recovery in a competitive environment. On top of that, their coaches, teammates, trainers and other sport personnel lacked education on eating disorders.

 

Unique Vulnerabilities = Unique Treatment

Athletes who perform at a high level possess many qualities which also make them vulnerable to the development of an eating disorder. Consider the following list:

Good Athlete

Mental Toughness

Commitment to training

Pursuit of Excellence

Anorexic Patient

Asceticism

Excessive Exercise

Perfectionism

These are just a few examples of how athletes share traits with many anorexic patients. Because of these similarities, athletes need help understanding how their competitive life can overlap with their eating disorder. An athlete does not necessarily need to quit his or her sport to recover. In fact, many individuals upon considering leaving the sport world will experience depression, identity confusion and lack of motivation. The opportunity to return to competition often is the greatest motivator available to an athlete. Other athletes may feel relieved with the opportunity to retire from sport. These are some of the many factors that treatment providers need to understand when working with athletes who, when properly motivated, often achieve strong and lasting recovery.

Athletes with Eating Disorders Need Treatment

Without treatment, an athlete can become isolated and recovery from an eating disorder is unlikely. Over time, the physical and mental state of the athlete will deteriorate, negatively affecting their health and performance. Poor athletic performance will likely result in more eating disorder behaviors and will increase the risk of serious metabolic injuries, including: 

  • fluid and electrolyte imbalances
  • impaired concentration and judgment
  • brittle bones and injuries to the musculoskeletal system
  • heart damage or failure

These risks not only impact health and athletic performance, but can be potentially life-threatening. Postponing treatment won’t solve the problem.