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Adolescent Athletes and Eating Disorders

By, Carolina Gaviria, LMHC, NCC, CEDS-S

Psychotherapist in private practice

Parents often encourage kids and teens to practice a sport so they can let out some of that “kid energy”, increase their gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination, build some strength and self-regulation, and learn how to practice team work. These are all great things! However, sometimes the hyper focus on skill improvement, competitiveness, perfectionism, body fitness and identity as an athlete can lead to struggles with food, weight and their bodies. In fact, up to 45% of female athletes and 19% of male athletes struggle with an eating disorder (Conviser, et al. 2018).

Eating disorders are common among athletes and can often go unnoticed since eating disorder behaviors might be reinforced by team mates and coaches who in an attempt to support performance provide advice about their food intake or increase pressure on weight. Other times, the pressure is self-imposed or with the goal of getting a scholarship to college. These attempts to control their body and increase performance can result in restricting, binging and purging by over-exercising, vomiting or using laxatives.

Living in a culture that idealizes fit bodies as part of a multimillion-dollar diet business that praises shape, self-control, and rewards perfectionism can lead to many adolescents using eating disorder symptoms as a way to increase their sense of control, decrease anxiety and regulate other emotions, have a sense of safety and accomplishment.

Some common eating disorder symptoms and warning signs among adolescent athletes might include but are not limited by:

  • Noticeable weight loss or gain

  • Being overly strict with their training regime

  • Body image disturbances as evidenced by being extremely critical of their body, appearance and/or weight

  • Worrying about weight or how weight is impacting their performance

  • Constantly checking their appearance in the mirror and spending too much time analyzing their bodies

  • Body checking using their hands and clothes or uniforms to measure weight gain or loss

  • Skipping meals and/or snacks

  • Measuring foods or misusing foods such as excessively drinking caffeine or water

  • Becoming fixated with certain foods and considering them safe foods or “healthy”

  • Avoiding certain foods and considering them “unhealthy”

  • Using supplements such as protein powder and bars as substitute

  • Making excuses to not eat or leaving often food on their plate

  • Eating large amounts of food or small portions

  • Eating in secrecy

  • Hiding foods

  • Using the bathroom often during meals or showering right after

  • Wearing devices to count and monitor calories

  • Experiencing dizziness or fainting spells during trainings

  • Decreased endurance performance and training response

  • Decreased strength and coordination

  • Decreased concentration

  • Anxiety around food

  • Heightened anxiety connected to the sport and obsession with training

  • Avoiding going out to eat with their team

  • Complaining of stomach pain and/or constant headaches

  • Symptoms of depression evidenced my lack of motivation, crying spells, irritability and isolation

  • Over-exercising or using other compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, using laxatives, diet pills, fasting or using prescription medications or nutritional supplements for weight loss

Although the rates of disordered eating behaviors and overall eating disorders among athletes appear to be increasing (Conviser, et al. 2018), warning signs and symptoms can tell you that your athlete is struggling and needs support. Make time to discuss your concerns with he or she and share about the importance of addressing them before they escalate. Eating disorder recovery is possible and early intervention is key to preserve health, increase safety, decrease risk for injury and medical consequences, and promotes recovery!

Here are some helpful resources:

You can access the SEES guideline for FREE: Safe Exercise at Every Stage Guideline

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a COACH AND TRAINER TOOLKIT ( to help coaches and training staff recognize and understand eating disorders among athletes. Their support will make a huge difference!


Conviser, J.H., Schlitzer, A.T, Nichols R. (2018). Assessment of Athletes With Eating Disorders: Essentials for Best Practice. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology.

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