Eating Disorders in High School Athletics


If you or someone you know is struggling with symptoms and signs of an eating disorder or suspect you may be, know that there are prevention measures and ways to receive help. Call or text (800) 931-2237 to speak with a trained NEDA volunteer at the helpline.

Eating Disorders and Sports

Daily activities like looking in the mirror, maintaining a sufficient diet, and performing athletically, do not cause stress to most high schoolers, but to someone struggling with an eating disorder, it can consume their whole world. “Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights,” according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Eating disorders and disordered eating share similarities but differ in that all eating disorders involve disordered eating, but not all disordered eating is diagnosed as an eating disorder. Additionally, eating disorders are conditions characterized by a persistence of harmful eating behaviors, which are detrimental to psychosocial and physical health. Though eating disorders can impact anyone when there is a presence of a negative body image, lack of self worth, and societal pressures, high schoolers who participate in athletics are more susceptible to the development.

The rates of eating disorders are significantly higher for high school athletes, with 7.3 percent compared to non high school athletes with an impact of 2.3 percent. It is more common to see eating disorders in athletes due to the competitive pressures and stressors to be successful that are common in most sport settings. This can cause athletes to value body weight and shape over personal health, creating the foundation for an eating disorder. The combination of frequent practices and competitions can lead to psychological stress, leading athletes to prioritize appearance and body shape over overall health and wellbeing.

Athletes involved in sports with aesthetic stereotypes and individual performance often see a higher amount of eating disorder diagnoses. The pressures which arise from individual performance sports like track, boxing, golf, and tennis, can cause athletes to over internalize all aspects of themselves. Sports that are known for focusing on body weight and encompassing an aesthetic demeanor are known as weight-class or aesthetic sports. Gymnastics, swimming, figure skating, dance, rowing, and wrestling are examples of these sports that often have an increased likelihood of athletes developing eating disorders, as the pressure to weigh or look a certain way is heightened. Aesthetic sports cause athletes to compare themselves to their peers, formulating the idea that they have a constant expectation to live up to. More specifically for female athletes, revealing uniforms can increase the uncomfortability and self confidence of an already struggling athlete. 

Eating disorders can lead to long term consequences for athletes, such as an increased risk of injury, metabolic imbalances, damage to vital organs, bone and muscle loss, and depression. If an athlete is told to prioritize health over the sport in order to recover, they will be forced to take time off of the activity, which can be hard for some athletes.

Although eating disorders can impact all genders, they are more likely to occur in females due to an increase in societal standards. Female athletes constitute 62 percent of athletes impacted with eating disorders with a 33 percent impact rate among males. Body image is the way in which an individual feels about their appearance, height, weight, and physical experience, along with their memories and assumptions about themselves. Due to the drastic rates of female eating disorders, the term “female athlete triad” came about to describe the negative impact of eating disorders on female athletes. Some female athlete triad consequences include menstrual dysfunction, a decrease in energy, and a reduced density of bone minerals. Internalizing oneself can lead to a negative body image. Having a healthy body image contributes to a healthy mental state, decreasing the risk for eating disorders.

Rachel Wilson’s Story

Senior Rachael Wilson has been running track for 11 years and is committed to Princeton University for long sprints and hurdles. Throughout her junior year, Wilson struggled with an eating disorder, induced by her high level participation in athletics. Running enveloped her high school experience, “junior year I just didn’t care about anything but track,” said Wilson. 

Eating disorders in some sports can start because athletes want to perform better. Track is a sport that relies on individual performances and times, which places stress on the athlete to run well. During junior year, in the midst of difficult classes, Wilson was also talking to college coaches about running track in college. This elevated the importance of her season and performance. 

Most eating disorders in athletics center around the misconception that one must have a lower weight to perform better. This creates a cycle where the athlete loses weight and continues to eat in a caloric deficit, chasing an unrealistic image of themselves in pursuit of better performance. “I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t associated a number or a size, or even just an idea with athletics,” said Wilson. “I don’t think I would have fallen into it if I didn’t think that I needed it to succeed in athletics.”

Eating disorders can alter behaviors. “I spent my entire junior year being mad at everybody,” said Wilson. “I would just go off randomly, I would say things, I would do things because I was just mad.” Wilson also spoke about her season, and how despite having a very successful year and winning states, she was unable to take pride in her accomplishments. 

It can be difficult for an athlete to accept that they have an eating disorder. “I didn’t really acknowledge that I had an eating disorder until it actually got bad,” said Wilson. “I know it’s basically the same thing, but I just considered it to be like disordered eating.” While both are similar, eating disorders include harmful eating habits that impact both physical and mental health.

The rates of eating disorders are significantly higher for high school athletes, with 7.3 percent compared to non high school athletes with an impact of 2.3 percent. The pressures which arise from individual performance sports like track, boxing, golf, and tennis, can cause athletes to over internalize all aspects of themselves. (Devon )

The realization that a person is struggling with an eating disorder can be hard to admit to oneself. “You just have a moment where you’ve been going at it for so long and you just wake up in a hole like ‘how did I get here,’” said Wilson. “I was in a public shower, and I was like ‘I just lied to my family about where I am just so I can purge in a gym shower, what is happening,’ that was the moment.”

The journey is not over after the athlete recognizes they are struggling. To move forward, it is important to understand why the eating disorder started and what can be done so the person becomes better at managing it. “I just think be really intuitive with yourself and figure out why you’re doing it,” said Wilson. “What’s the incentive just, be really introspective about things because you’ve got to be really comfortable with yourself to move on.” Although Wilson did not seek help, she recognizes that it can be beneficial for some.

Recovering from an eating disorder is a long process. “It’s still there, I’m just better at controlling it, I don’t think that thing is ever going to go away, it’s just how you deal with it and manage it,” said Wilson. Overall, it is important to value health over sports. “[An eating disorder] is not worth the long term health effects and even the short term mental effects it has on a person.”

Abigail Gelfand’s Story 

Senior Abigail Gelfand has been a member of the crew team since middle school. She joined the team her freshman year, but because of an injury became a coxswain, the individual sitting at the front of the boat in charge. “Coxswains are typically smaller and so that was hard,” said Gelfand. After she recovered from her injury, she restarted rowing and has been a member of the team ever since. 

Gelfand believes she had an eating disorder before it was diagnosed. In addition, Covid played a big part in her experience, emphasizing individual performance pressure. “I figured that if I ate less food and did more workouts, then I would get faster, which isn’t really how that works,” said Gelfand. When Gelfand returned to practice in sophomore year, she had trouble completing workouts, constantly feeling dizzy, blacking out, and throwing up.        

Though Gelfand was aware that the excessive workouts and limited nutrition was not the best choice, her eating disorder caused her to disregard the acknowledgement at the time. “I figured that I would just get to the point where I was fast…and then start eating normally again and maintaining that and it would just be fine,” said Gelfand. She decided to tell her parents and together they found a dietitian. Gelfand sought help from the dietitian for about a year and a half and just recently graduated from it. 

“I think athletics in general focus more on your physical health and with that comes both being active and eating right,” said Gelfand. “A lot of coaches will just say blanket statements like, ‘make sure you’re eating well’ and they don’t necessarily specify what that means. One person can hear that and be like ‘oh that means only eat salads, only eat boiled chicken’ and stuff like that, and there’s no real room for anything that actually tastes good.” Gelfand would exert more calories than she consumed, detrimentally affecting her health and well being. 

Although recovery looks different for everyone, Gelfand believes that “it doesn’t get better until you ask for help.” She says that one can not simply have an eating disorder, achieve their goal, and then expect everything to return to normal. Gelfand said, “your body gets used to not getting as much food so it doesn’t want that much food, but it still needs the food, so you have to consciously eat more than you think you should.” 

Through her experience with her eating disorder, Gelfand wants people struggling to know that “You’re not in it alone. Many people have gone through it whether they talk about it or not.” Additionally, she advises individuals to “lean on people that can support you.” 

Preventative Measures and Resources

 It is important to identify the risks of eating disorders in order to proactively take measures to prevent them. Though anyone is prone to the formation of an eating disorder, elite athletes who suffer with a lack of self esteem, increased amounts of stress, pressure to perform well, and perfectionism, are more at risk. In addition, a history of eating disorders within the family can increase the risk for the athlete. A coaching style within the athlete’s sport that focuses more on success than the value of the individual can also contribute to the formation of a disorder. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with symptoms and signs of an eating disorder or suspect you may be, know that there are prevention measures and ways to receive help. The NEDA recommends coaching that focuses more widely than just on performance, healthy discussions and views of all body shapes and sizes, and open discussions on normal changes within the female body. Although it is not easy, reducing negative factors like depression, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction, can help to prevent an eating disorder. Recognizing your self-worth and worrying less about appearances, while gaining appreciation for your body’s function is a good place to start. 

Prevention Programs work to prevent eating disorders and have been proven to alter attitudes and behaviors. Call or text (800) 931-2237 to speak with a trained NEDA volunteer at the helpline. Although services provided on the helpline should not be used in lieu of professional help, resources, support, and treatment options can be discussed. If you are in need of emergent help, text NEDA to 741741 at the crisis line. Know you are not alone and there is a wide net of support ready to assist when and if you are ready.  

*Information from the National Eating Disorder Association