Hiredesai: Bodies in sport

Annika Hiredesai, Assistant Opinion Editor

Content warning: This story includes mentions of eating disorders.

There are few bodies as subject to scrutiny as those of athletes. This constant gaze places immense pressure on athletes to live up to a certain image from a very young age. While sports can have a slew of positive effects, the increased risk for disordered relationships with food and compensatory exercise should not be ignored. 

Disordered eating is a widespread problem in sports, from young athletes to professionals. Exact numbers vary, but a comprehensive study on athletes and eating habits estimated that 13.5% meet the criteria for an eating disorder compared to 9% of the general population as estimated by a second study. If we break down these statistics further, reports also indicate disparities in prevalence by sex and sport. Female athletes are at an increased risk, with the former study finding the prevalence of eating disorders to be 20.1% in this group. Athletes whose sports believe losing weight improves athletic performance, prioritize aesthetics and may use weight as competitive criteria are all at a higher risk of exhibiting disordered eating as well. 

People often assume eating disorders are apparent upon first glance. However, there is no specific “look” of a person suffering from an eating disorder. In fact, less than 6% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder are classified as medically underweight. Failure to take these conditions seriously in those who don’t fit the stereotype has serious consequences: comorbidities of eating disorders include various nutritional deficiencies, cardiac irregularities, multiple organ failure and increased rate of death by suicide.

Discerning disordered eating in the athlete population is particularly difficult. Oftentimes, disordered eating patterns are normalized and even encouraged for the sake of performance when there is a high prioritization of low weight and/or body fat percentage. Athletes who fit the ideal image of their sports and/or perform at high levels are likely to be overlooked when it comes to identification of disordered eating. 

In female athletes who have a greater incidence of eating disorders, prolonged patterns of disordered eating can lead to “female athlete triad syndrome.” This is a condition characterized by amenorrhea, lower bone mineral density and low energy availability, all of which can have devastating consequences on health and performance now and in the long-term.

Given the prevalence of disordered eating and related psychopathologies in the athlete population, it is essential that sports programs, from the youth level to the professional, are well-equipped to support athletes. 

In some NCAA schools, disordered eating educational programs have been instituted to train athletes and staff to improve identification and referral skills. For sports where weight impacts eligibility for competition, such as wrestling, it is crucial to develop support systems and coaching that minimize the risk of abusing food and exercise while making sure athletes can compete. 

A statement released by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association calls for an interdisciplinary approach to screening and treatment of disordered eating within the athletic community. Given the far-reaching physical, emotional and social consequences of eating disorders, nothing less will do.

Annika Hiredesai is a Weinburg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.