Elite Athletes and Eating Disorders: Did You Know…?

Did you know there is a strong link between elite athletes and dysfunctional food and body focus behaviours?  It seems to intuitively make sense for most people when the link is suggested, but why? These two articles are journal articles discussing finding of the relationship between various types of sport athletes and some possible ideas about why there may be links to some sports more than others.

Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine Abstract link

Journal Article: Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Female Athletes link

What causes disordered eating?  In a nutshell… fixation on food or body image is initially intended (by the human brain) to help an individual cope with stress/anxiety. Its the brain’s way of finding relief from everyday events that cause anxiety by meeting a perceived need. They start out, in essence, as a coping strategy. Events (ideas of events) remind one of needs that we must take care of to survive. These needs, which range from food, air and water all the way to safety, love, acceptance, belongingness and a sense of worthiness have been found to be consistent across cultures around the world. Abraham Mazlow depicted the summary of basic human needs in his Hierarchy of Needs pyramid which has held merit since he first published his idea in 1943


When an individual perceives that there is a high amount of pay-off for a particular body type or, more often, a high amount of anxiety related to not having a particular body type the brain can become trapped in a cycle of trying to meet or maintain the need for that body type. Perceived successes, which can look like a particular number on a scale or size on a tag of clothing can produce a positive neurological/hormonal response (dopamine, serotonin etc..) which are remembered by the brain as “good”, when in the big picture a number on a scale may have no relevance to good health or performance for that individual.

The pressures associated with performance related to body type for elite athletes is likely to be high so it isn’t difficult to see how athletes could get caught up in this obsessive cycle,particularly given the developmental stage that most brains are at when athletes tend to be at their physical peak. Studies show that the brain has not finished developing until we are into our early 20’s (Jay Giedd)(EDinformatics) which, for many elite athletes, may be past their prime physically. This means that emotionally and psychologically they are working with brains that are still in the phase that tends to focus on “who am I”, the time when we are really figuring out who we are and/or want to be. This is generally done by comparing ourselves to others.

Casey, Jones and Hare, (2008) write, “Adolescence is a developmental period characterized by suboptimal decisions and actions that are associated with an increased incidence of unintentional injuries, violence, substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases”. In a nutshell, again, the teen years are often a time when well-thought-out decisions are not the norm for many simply because the brain does not have the capacity to make them. I do want to recognize that some elite athletes are over the age of 25 but most are not.

The findings in this research on elite athletes gives me pause for thought. Do we as individuals contribute to the pressures that these athletes find themselves under? I want to be able to say that I don’t contribute but professional and elite sports are a very accepted and even revered part of our culture. That is something to think about.

Dawn Cox is a Registered Clinical Counsellor seeing individuals and couples in person in Victoria BC or online via Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangout.


This entry was posted in Alexithymia, Anxiety, Binge Eating, Bulimia, depression, dieting, eating disorders, Eating Disorders / Food and Body Image, Night Eating, Orthorexia, Overeating, Overexercise, Self-Esteem, Stress, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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