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When students engage in athletics programs, they gain valuable skills, make lasting connections, and improve their physical fitness. As they regularly engage in physical activities, they improve the health of their heart, lungs, and many other systems throughout their bodies. But there is a potential downside to their participation in student athletics. Students that put everything into playing sports face many additional risk factors that make them more likely to develop eating disorders in adolescence.  

Although these risk factors are not a guarantee that an eating disorder will develop, they are worth paying close attention to. Parents can keep a better eye on their kids’ health and wellbeing by taking this risk into account and watching for the warning signs. Then, if any arise, they can act quickly in getting their kids the appropriate level of help from an effective eating disorder treatment center.

Factors That Increase the Risk of Eating Disorders in Student-Athletes

Despite all the ways sports benefit kids’ minds and bodies, the activities can introduce additional factors that increase their risk of developing eating disorders. The factors are not the same across all sports and affect kids differently depending on their unique situations.

Parents can use what they know about their own child’s disposition and situation to assess whether the factors are posing a problem or not. They can also reach out for help from eating disorder specialists in assessing their child’s need for care.

To help them keep a close watch on their child’s health and wellness, here’s a look at just some of the factors that may increase the risk of eating disorders in student-athletes.

Strong Focus on Appearance

When teens and adolescents play sports, they may have a stronger focus on how they look out on the field or the court. This is especially true during games and other competitions, as they may feel like they are in the spotlight while playing their sport of choice.

As they become preoccupied with their body image, concerns about their shape and size can lead to dieting behaviors. They may also try to change or control their body by dramatically increasing physical activity levels.

If their initial efforts do not have the desired effect, they may slip into disordered behaviors as a means of control. As this occurs, body image issues can worsen, causing a vicious cycle that requires treatment to halt.

Emphasis on Having a Lean Build

Gymnastics, running, and many other sports emphasize the need for a lean build to achieve the ultimate in performance. As teens and adolescents strive to improve their gameplay or beat their personal records, they may feel pressure to shed the pounds and stay as lean as possible. Unfortunately, during that time in life, weight fluctuations and bodily changes are the norm, adding to their concerns and making maintaining a lean body type near impossible.

They may respond to their difficulties in staying lean by resorting to disordered eating patterns or increasing their daily exercise. Depending on the type of disordered behaviors they engage in, they may develop bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, or similar conditions as a result.

Spotlight on Individual Performance 

Sports that put the spotlight on individual performance can lead to eating disorders as teens and adolescents focus on achieving the desired results. As they work on beating personal records or learning new skills, they may experience a decrease in self-confidence and body image issues. They may see their weight, size, or shape as solely inhibiting their performance, as they cannot share the losses with their team.

As that occurs, they may feel like they need to make changes to overcome their challenges and reach their goals. Disordered eating and exercise habits can arise as a result, causing them to develop an eating disorder. Without treatment, the eating disorder may cause many health complications, worsening their performance and potentially causing them to try to compensate even more with harmful behaviors.

Social Pressure from Peers

Team sports can prove equally problematic for some, as they often come with social pressure to perform at their limits. Teens and adolescents may fear letting down their team or hearing about their missteps, causing them to push themselves to the limits in every way. They might even change their eating habits or increase exercise to avoid that scenario.

Making things even worse, their peers may point out their perceived shortcomings, causing their self-esteem to greatly decline. All of these factors can lead to the development of eating disorders to cope. They might also engage in those behaviors as a way to overcome their alleged shortcomings and achieve the right level of performance for their teammates.

Excessive Focus on a Single Sport

As with the risks of keeping the spotlight on individual performance, having an unwavering focus on a single sport can also increase the risk of eating disorders. That razor-sharp focus can put tons of pressure on teens and adolescents to improve their skills and achieve even greater results each season.

They may start to feel obsessed with becoming faster, stronger, or even more flexible, causing dissatisfaction with themselves if they cannot achieve their ever-increasing goals. The decline in satisfaction with themselves can lead to harmful eating habits and other behaviors to compensate.

Low Self-Esteem 

When student-athletes perform well in their sport of choice, their self-esteem increases in kind. But if they are not at their best, their self-confidence can take a dive, leaving them feeling rather bad about themselves. All it takes is one bad season to wipe out all the self-esteem developing during prior years of sports, leaving teens and adolescents susceptible to eating disorders.

Chronic low self-esteem is strongly linked to the development of eating disorders due to its negative impact on the psyche. As individuals feel bad about themselves, they may look closely for flaws that they can control. Focus often goes to weight and size, as those factors are often emphasized in the sports world. When that happens, they may adopt disordered eating and exercise habits that become ingrained and damage their wellbeing in the long run.

Dysfunctional Family Dynamics

Dysfunctional family dynamics are also linked to the development of eating disorders in teens and adolescents. Family dysfunction can look like:

  • A lack of boundaries
  • Absence of empathy
  • Frequent periods of conflict
  • Unfair treatment
  • Poor communication
  • Minimal time together

When dysfunctional family dynamics are in play, student-athletes may feel immense pressure to perform well and not let down their parents. If they have trouble reaching their goals, they may resort to disordered thoughts and behaviors to cope. Eating disorders can arise as they seek a way to control their minds, bodies, and lives without causing disruption.

When one or more of these factors are in play, student-athletes face a much higher risk of developing eating disorders. Parents can work with eating disorder therapists to mitigate the risks and provide their kids with the ideal level of support throughout the years. They will receive help with identifying all the underlying factors and working through them one by one.

Common Eating Disorders in Student-Athletes

As stressors pile up, student-athletes may start to experience disordered thoughts that add to their distress. Disordered behaviors often follow as they attempt to cope with distressing thoughts and pressures. This cycle leads to the start of eating disorders that can have a lasting impact on their health and wellbeing. The most common eating disorders associated with student-athletes include:

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa in teens and adolescents presents as recurrent periods of binge eating followed by purging behaviors. They tend to eat large amounts of food in a single sitting, then purge it all back out by forcing themselves to vomit. Or, instead of vomiting, they may misuse laxatives to force their bodies to quickly eliminate the excess calories without absorbing them. These behaviors usually occur weekly, if not more often. 

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is another eating disorder that can affect student-athletes of all ages, even well into the college years. This condition develops as teens and adolescents seriously restrict their food intake, only consuming a limited number of calories each day. They may even go all day without eating to decrease their weight and gain a sense of control. People with anorexia are also prone to using exercise to compensate for everything they eat and avoid gaining weight. 

Binge Eating Disorder

Although it is typically associated with weight gain instead of loss, binge eating disorder is another condition that can affect student-athletes. This eating disorder occurs as individuals use food to cope with overwhelming negative emotions and stress. When affected by this condition, teens and adolescents may overeat certain types of food over a short period. They do not engage in purging behaviors, however, resulting in weight gain from the overeating behaviors. 

All of these eating disorders initially give student-athletes a sense of control over their bodies. The disordered thoughts and behaviors quickly become overwhelming, however, causing serious distress that compounds their difficulties. To become fully recovered from eating disorders, teens and adolescents will need care from skilled eating disorder experts experienced in working with kids of all ages.

Signs That Indicate a Need for Eating Disorder Treatment

Although each eating disorder presents a bit differently, there are some common warning signs to watch for in gauging the wellbeing of teens and adolescents, including:

  • Inability to control the disordered thoughts and actions
  • Guilt and shame about their uncontrollable behaviors
  • Weight fluctuations and attempts to hide the changes
  • Unwillingness to eat family meals at home or restaurants
  • The development of depression and anxiety
  • Dry skin and hair loss
  • Vomiting and constipation
  • Dehydration
  • Dizziness and fainting

When parents notice any warning signs of binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or similar conditions in their kids, or just feel like something is wrong, they can reach out for help with a call to 866-784-9358. Admissions specialists are always standing by ready to help parents get their kids the right level of care. They can help parents take the first steps in having their child assessed for an eating disorder and enrolled in treatment if needed.

Upon completing the intake assessment, teens and adolescents can enter treatment and start receiving care right away. Parents will remain an important part of the care process and stay in close contact with the eating disorder treatment team. They can come in regularly to take part in family programming activities, including individual and group therapy sessions.

As they offer their support to their children, they will help them become fully recovered while learning what to do to prevent relapse in the future. Continued support is available to parents after their kids return home from eating disorder treatment as well.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.