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A Norm That Shouldn’t Be: Eating Disorders Among Female Athletes


A Norm That Shouldn’t Be: Eating Disorders Among Female Athletes

Nicole Smith-Vaniz

June 7, 2022


Preface and Introductory Statistics

It is important to acknowledge that eating disorders impose risks to those of any demographic; however, this article will focus on the perils of eating disorders impacting female athletes. While eating disorders are common in the general population, especially in women and increasingly in men, athletes are at even greater risk. At least nine percent of Americans are predicted to experience an eating disorder within their lifetime. These numbers only increase for athletes, with 35% of female and 10% of male college athletes being at risk for anorexia nervosa, and 58% of female and 38% of male college athletes being at risk for bulimia nervosa. It is evident that female athletes are an overwhelmingly at-risk population for developing an eating disorder. This article aims to spread awareness of how eating disorders may develop in female athletes and ways to reduce the likelihood of these disorders occurring.

  I would additionally like to preface that there is nothing wrong with the normalization of mental illness. It should be understood and accepted that individuals face these challenges so that they can receive the support they need. The problem is that we should not accept certain disorders as the default. The occurrence of eating disorders should not be similarly frequent to a healthy relationship with food. The fact that female athletes are almost expected to have eating disorders is not something to be complacent with. 

Thoughts From An Ex-Runner

Being a previously competitive female runner, the topic of eating disorders is not foreign to me. Most, if not all, of my team was aware of the existence of eating disorders, yet little was done to stop it. While our coaches condemned eating disorders, in theory, they avoided applying this in practice. They failed to acknowledge suffering athletes after being made aware of disorders impacting these individuals. Many of our top runners had periodically experienced eating disorders and described the physical repercussions of these disorders to our coaches. Female athletes who had lost their periods were still encouraged to run, and coaches denoted this as giving their athletes bodily autonomy. 

As our coaches refused to confront the problem of eating disorders, many fellow athletes put it upon themselves to care for our teammates. Eating encouragement was a common topic at my practices. My teammates would constantly commend each other for eating, quizzing each other at the end of the day on their daily calorie intake. This would even occur with individuals who did not express or appear to have any symptoms of an eating disorder. On the surface, it was heartwarming that they cared enough to monitor each other's health, but the underlying feelings that these conversations brought about were largely uncomfortable. 

Until recently, I had a difficult time understanding why I was bothered by my team mates looking out for each other. I loved that my peers deeply cared for one another, so what was the problem? Why were these conversations so alarming? 

The issue was not that my friends were caring for each other. The issue was that eating disorders were so typical within our demographic that my friends assumed their team mates might be suffering from them. How did eating disorders become so common for female athletes? And why were our coaches doing nothing to stop them?

Fitness Based Athletics: The Pros of Being Skinny

While EDs can develop due to a variety of environmental influences, a key factor impacting many athletes is the message that losing weight can aid in their performance. For example, most figure skaters know that due to physics, they can rotate more quickly if they are lighter. For runners, weighing less is emphasized due to its aid in speed. After all, more energy is required to move larger objects. Additionally, less weight generally allows for higher V02 max, a key element in running and other fitness-based sports, as it is based on the efficiency of oxygen distribution to muscles. The list goes on about the various theoretical benefits of weight loss taught to athletes. These potential performance advantages of being lighter often influence athletes to lose weight, feeding into mindsets that could result in eating disorders.

The Role of Coaching in Eating Disorder Development

  While most athletic coaches do not directly support eating disorders, they are aware of these potential performance-based benefits of being thinner. This may lead coaches to spread messages that could eventually evolve into eating disorders. Manifestations of this may include comments regarding weight, calorie restriction, or purposeful ignorance in regards to eating disorders. For example, professional mid-distance runner Mary Cain recently touched on her coach’s training protocol, explaining that he included mandated weight loss. Cain not only experienced an eating disorder stemming from her coach’s influence but began to struggle with depression, anxiety, and a series of injuries. Cain was not alone in her experiences. Gracie Gold, an Olympic figure skater, stated that her eating disorder began when her coach commented on her body, describing parts of her as too big. While coaches played a clearer role in these examples, coaches can contribute to eating disorders in more subliminal or indirect ways.

Many coaches scarcely acknowledge the existence of eating disorders and may consciously or subconsciously avoid approaching struggling athletes. In these cases, coaches are aiding in the sustainment of the disorder by refusing to recognize and support the athlete. Other forms of purposeful ignorance can include not teaching athletes about the dangers of eating disorders or failing to provide an environment where an athlete feels comfortable speaking about such matters with their coach.

Improving the Athletic Environment

Going forward, it would be beneficial to regulate that coaching teams include professional expertise in the fields of nutrition and psychology. Although some coaches have the knowledge needed to support athletes in this capacity, many do not have the proper training to fully do so. While this does not excuse the lack of support concerning eating disorders in current coaching practices, it may contribute to why it occurs. As many coaches do not come equipped with proper educational backgrounds, team leadership roles must be expanded to include individuals with knowledgeable backgrounds regarding eating disorders. It is difficult for coaches to operate with the autonomy that they have now and support athletes in every capacity needed. 

It may be financially difficult to implement this change, but the budget for professional athletics can support this change. Nike has a net worth of 32 billion dollars and could afford to provide athletes with adequate nutritional and psychological support. U.S Figure skating has an annual budget of 18 million dollars. It is not unrealistic, nor unreasonable, to expect that larger athletic organizations could allocate funds to focus on their athletes' health more holistically. Additionally, educational resources could be created and distributed for smaller programs to educate coaches and athletes. Free online training regarding concussion and sexual harassment is available to high school athletes. So why not extend this training to promote against eating disorders? It is time to work to reduce the occurrence of eating disorders and expand the resources available concerning these disorders.

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