Who is At Risk for Eating Disorders?

Most at risk are teenage adolescent girls ages 12-18. Incidence rates of anorexia nervosa are highest in females ages 15-19, yet the age continues to drop as we are seeing an increase in young girls’ age’s eight to twelve developing anorexia.

It is now common in elementary schools to hear that 50% of 4th graders have either been on a “diet” or “want to lose weight.” If you walk around an elementary school campus listen to the 8, 9 and 10 year-olds saying how fat their thighs are or how big their tummies are. This is frightening because we know for a fact that the incidence of eating disorders continue to be on the rise regardless of the prevention efforts.


The NCAA has identified eating disorders as an important health concern in certain sports. Individuals who participate in the following athletic activities may be especially vulnerable to developing eating disorders: elite athletes whose sports require a certain amount of leanness or lightness such as gymnastics, dance, cheerleading, cross-country, crew, swimming, figure skating and wrestling. Concern has been the highest in women’s gymnastics where 59 percent of elite competitors have some sort of eating disorder (1994).

However, the rate of eating disorders continues to rise in the general population and in other sports as well. We are seeing a tremendous rise in the amount of males with eating disorders in sports such as weightlifting, wrestling, and cross-country. Although awareness of the problem is growing, few sports are taking vigorous, systematic steps to counteract it. Eating disorders are not new to sports, however often the individual will not seek help for fear of being taken off the team or unable to compete. Because athletes often believe that when they are thinner and/or lighter they will improve their performance, win more often, be quicker and faster, the less likely these athletes are to seek the help they need.

The truth is in the beginning the athlete may feel a “high” or an initial feeling of euphoria. As time goes on and the eating disorder stubbornly remains it will take over all aspects of one’s life. The athlete will lose strength, endurance, and motivation. They will lose their ability to concentrate and stay focused on the event at hand. This will happen; it’s only a matter of time. We do not want to see the dreams and aspirations of these athletes come to an abrupt end because of an illness that is preventable and relatively easy to treat if caught early enough. Athletes train because they love their sport, yet many in gymnastics become bitter later in life as they see what an eating disorder took from them. Sometimes it’s simply their sports career, but sadly sometimes it’s their very lives.

There is a sad but true reality that athletes die from eating disorders, even Olympians. About one third of female athletes and a smaller amount of males struggle with eating disorders. Strange eating habits can seem almost normal among many athletes. Restricting food is often an attempt to improve performance, yet ironically it only results in depleted fuel stores, muscle wasting, stress fractures, fainting, weakness, fatigue, and impaired performance.

Distinguishing between a dedicated athlete and a compulsive exerciser can be extremely difficult. Both share common traits such as: the need for perfection, a dedication that can seem like an obsession at times, a compulsiveness and rigidity in their training schedules and often the type of food they eat may be similar.

According to Angela Guarda, “The ability to work toward a goal, to sacrifice present satisfaction for future reward, is what makes you good at athletics – and good at starving yourself (www.csmonitor.com/2004/0826/p11s02-ussc.htm).” Experts agree that the attributes that produce successful athletes such as strict discipline and perfectionism can also lead to eating disorders.

USA Gymnastics, the US Tennis Association, and UK athletics are some groups that offer coach’s education programs to help detect eating disorders or those who may be at risk of developing them. However, awareness of eating disorders varies widely with coaches and judges within each sport. One of the greatest detectors of whether an athlete will seek help for their disordered eating/excessive exercise is whether or not their coach or trainer is aware and open to the discussion of eating disorders. Whether or not the coach shows concern will help determine whether the athlete will seek treatment.

Athletes build a unique relationship with their coaches and often look up to them as a mentor, father-mother figure and as such, athletes will show concern for their coaches reaction. Therefore it is imperative that coaches and trainers seek out specific eating disorder training and learn how to handle these situations and where to go to seek treatment. Coaches are the primary force in convincing an athlete to get help.

Eating disorders can quickly and abruptly end one’s athletic career. Gymnasts are forced to give up the sport simply because as they lose weight they can no longer hang on to the difficult requirements needed to compete; they simply lose their strength. When eating disorders take over one’s life these individuals loose focus of their goals, depression sets in, they lose motivation, and simply want to “give up.”

Gymnasts are not the only at risk athletes. Long distance runners, dancers, cheerleaders, figure skaters, swimmers and divers are among those who are at an increased risk to develop an eating disorder.

Men in certain sports are more inclined to develop an eating disorder. Not too long ago 3 collegiate wrestlers died trying to “make weight.” Marathon runners have collapsed when running a race, male crew members and jockeys are also known to develop some type of disordered eating in an attempt to stay lean.

In addition to focusing on the athletes in Orange County, EDFOC targets other media focused professions and/or hobbies such as modeling or acting. We are acutely aware of the high interest and popularity of these activities in our community in addition to our already media focused, “So-Cal” or “OC” image.