Eating disorders do not discriminate, and anyone can develop an eating disorder. However, specific populations, such as athletes, endure experiences that put them disproportionately at risk for developing an eating disorder.

By: Samreen Khan

In 2017, United States national figure skating champion Gracie Gold took a break from competing to recover from her eating disorder. In 2020, she returned after finding a healthier balance between her sport and life. Gold’s story is one example of how disordered eating, though well-hidden, runs rampant in athletic communities. By amplifying these narratives and offering support, we can reduce the shame around mental health issues in athletes. 

While approximately 9% of the general US population suffers from eating disorders¹, a 2011 study found that 40% to 49% of NCAA Division I and III athletes engage in significantly disordered eating behaviors⁶. 

Athletes experience immense pressure to perform at their best at all times. Pressure from multiple angles – coaches, parents, competitors, and themselves – can all be notable contributors to disordered eating. Many athletes suffer from additional mental health issues as well. Recent US Olympic and Paralympic Committee research revealed that almost 60% of elite athletes struggle with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety². Eating disorders and these mental conditions often go hand in hand, and they feed off each other while stripping away at the individual.

In addition, over 30% of all athletes reported being consistently dissatisfied with their bodies and preoccupied with their weight⁶. Many sports place hefty pressure on athletes to look a certain way to improve their performance or placement. Athletes competing in aesthetic sports, such as dance, gymnastics, and figure skating, are encouraged to maintain a specific body size to obtain higher scores. In endurance sports, such as track, swimming, and cycling, lower body weight is commonly associated with a higher level of competition⁵. And, of course, weight-class sports, such as wrestling, football, and rowing, require athletes to weigh in at benchmark numbers before competitions. Eating disorders are widespread in these communities as contenders engage in disordered eating behaviors to achieve the ideal weight. Athletes participating in sports that do not focus on one’s appearance experience high levels of disordered eating; a Cornell study that 40% of their university football players engaged in binging and purging behaviors³.

Unfortunately, disordered eating in athletic communities often goes unnoticed and untreated and can even be encouraged by well-meaning coaches and parents. Habits commonly accompanying disordered eating habits, such as compulsive overexercise to compensate for eating, are easily masked as dedicated training. Obsessively controlling one’s intake is disguised as a strict diet for improved performance. But disordered eating can lead to a cycle in which the eating disorder decreases performance quality and, as a result, places even more pressure on the athlete, creating conditions in which their eating disorder may likely worsen.

Last year’s Olympic games drew attention to mental health issues concealed within athletic communities. Elite athletes like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Sha’Carri Richardson opened up about their struggles as they stepped back from the competition. Record-breakers like Jessie Diggins and Jamie Silverstein bravely shared their eating disorder recovery stories in former years. The matter is that athletes, at any level, are far from immune to these hardships. It is necessary to consider how meaningful these conversations are within the sports community. Continuing to break the stigma around mental health will lessen the burden on athletes as they pursue wellness and recovery.

BALANCE recently hosted a panel discussion, “Perfection and Performance: Athletes and Eating Disorders” with BALANCE’s Director of Nutrition Services Blake Bittle, Dr. Kate Bennett, Rebecca McConville, and Olympic Gold Medalist Samantha Livingstone, where we talked about warning signs of eating disorders in athletes, how treatment for eating disorders impacts training, if athletism and recovery co-exist, how perfectionism relates to eating disorders and athletes, and more. Click here to watch and listen to this discussion.

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This post was written by BALANCE Blog Contributor, Samreen Khan (she/her/he/him). 

Samreen is a high school graduate with an ardent drive to de-stigmatize mental illness and eating disorders. Born and raised in the Bay Area, she experienced the harmful effects of “fitspo” culture firsthand for most of her childhood. Throughout her own recovery journey, she became passionate about deconstructing diet culture and raising awareness about eating disorders in her everyday life. Samreen began extending her own ideology of intuitive eating and body neutrality to others by publishing her own writing online when she was fourteen, and has since received several awards for her prose and poetry. She has conducted research on the biological and evolutionary implications of familial mental illness, and is currently taking college-level Sociology and Psychology courses with hopes to delve further into the social and cultural constructs that bolster disordered eating, especially within marginalized communities. She’s grateful for the opportunity to combine two of her strongest passions — writing and mental health — by working with BALANCE!


  1. “Eating Disorder Statistics: General & Diversity Stats: Anad.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, ANAD, 3 Nov. 2021, 
  2. Knight, Rachel. “Mental Health Takes Center Stage at Tokyo Olympics.” Texas A&M Today, Texas A&M University, 6 Aug. 2021,
  3. Koman, Stuart, and Gail Hanson-Mayer. “Which Athletes Likeliest to Develop EDS?” Walden Eating Disorders, Walden Behavioral Care, 5 Jan. 2022, 

  4. Macur, Juliet. “Ex-Rising Star Makes a Healthy Return to the Ice.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Feb. 2006, 

  5. Mancine, Ryley P., et al. “Prevalence of Disordered Eating in Athletes Categorized by Emphasis on Leanness and Activity Type – A Systematic Review.” Journal of Eating Disorders, vol. 8, no. 1, 29 Sept. 2020, Accessed 26 Jan. 2022. 

  6. Power, Ksenia, et al. “Disordered Eating and Compulsive Exercise in Collegiate Athletes: Applications for Sport and Research.” The Sport Journal, United States Sports Academy, 31 Jan. 2020,

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