SPORTS OPINION | Eating disorders in college athletics need more recognition

With Eating Disorder Awareness Week coming up, I think that it is an appropriate time to acknowledge that eating, training and overall mental health issues are rampant within college athletics.

In a study by the Sports Science Institute, the NCAA classifies the most commonly diagnosed eating disorders as:

  • Anorexia nervosa

Persistent calorie intake restriction and a fear of gaining weight.

  • Bulimia nervosa

Recurring binge-eating followed by compensatory behaviors (vomiting, excessive exercise, over-restricting afterwards, etc.).

  • Binge-eating disorder

Recurring binge-eating without compensatory behaviors. However, there is still marked distress after each episode.

Each of these disorders also tend to correspond with some form of body dysmorphia.

The likelihood of an athlete developing an eating disorder during their time competing in college sports can vary on a multitude of factors.

As a women’s soccer player who has experienced an eating disorder and recently managed to clamber out of it, the factors that have caused it to flare up now and again have been:

  • The associated similarities between traits of being a “good athlete” and having symptoms of an eating disorder.

Sometimes the line between healthy and unhealthy behaviors becomes blurred and unclear. For example, restricting food will make you lose weight. Losing weight is widely associated with increased fitness and athleticism. Coaches and teammates can praise you for this improvement. This can validate your eating disorder and “perfectionist” mindset, allowing it to continue and escalate.

  • Equating high performance with restriction and over-training

Again, this emphasizes the relationship between being a “good athlete” and disordered eating. The mindset in college sports is centered around hard work and discipline. Therefore, the more you work, the better you will become. The more you plan and restrict, the higher your athletic ceiling will rise.

  • Comparing my body and athleticism with my teammates

The pressure of competition is inherent within any athletic pursuit. This is normal and natural. Internal competition within your own team for starting roles, playing time and even an increase in scholarship can allow you to compare yourself to the others. Allowing this to obsessively control your behaviors can lead to poor mental health.

It is clear that elite athletes develop fundamental values of discipline, determination and dedication. However, these positive aspects can develop into negative ones if they are focused on too much.

Excessive discipline can lead to overtraining and restrictive eating. Relentless determination can result in a stubbornness that prolongs this, and obsessive dedication can exacerbate it further.

The solution is a slow march towards balance. This can be a scary and difficult process. You have to surrender the control that the eating disorder gave you. This can feel counterintuitive and pointless. After all, you now have to start placing more focus on your mental health rather than your physical capabilities.

However, treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help to ease and guide you through this process.

My experience with ED recovery has been a turbulent and difficult one. However, the huge amount of support I have received from my family, teammates and coaches has helped me an unexplainable amount.

The first step is to speak to someone.

Resources for student athletes:

  • Your athletic trainer
  • UC Health Their resources are available through your athletic trainer or UC Health app.
  • UCCS Wellness Center: Students can call (719) 255-4444 to set up an appointment.
  • TELUS Health

Photo by Andy Wood on Unsplash.