Do a quick internet search for “eating disorder athlete story.” You’ll quickly stumble upon a long list of inspirational stories about young, Caucasian, female athletes who once suffered from an eating disorder but who have since recovered. I in no way want to diminish the struggles that these athletes have experienced and overcome, but in reading all of these stories, it would seem logical to conclude that eating disorders must be an issue that occurs exclusively in females. In reality, negative body image, disordered eating behaviors, and diagnosed eating disorders affect people across all ages, races, genders, sexual identities, socioeconomic statuses, as well as athletes and non-athletes alike.
When it comes to males, we tend to hear more about eating disorders occurring in homosexual males. So does being a heterosexual male make one immune to eating disorders? Definitely not. Studies show that the ratio of males to females who suffer from eating disorders is about 1 to 3. In addition, if you look across the entire population, there are more cases of eating disorders among heterosexual males than among homosexual males.
We also know that males often experience negative body dissatisfaction in different ways than their female counterparts. Males tend to idealize a stronger, leaner body type, causing them to obsessively exercise for hours at the gym, to waste excessive amounts of money on nutritional supplements, or to experiment with steroids. In addition, males are less likely to report disordered eating behavior or even to consider these behaviors as anything other than normal. Why? One, there’s a widespread misconception that eating disorders don’t occur in males. As a result, many males feel that coming forward as having an eating disorder will pull into question their masculinity.
Males also have higher rates of participation in weight-class sports such as wrestling, rowing, and some martial arts. In these sports, a particular pre-competition weight is required to qualify for participation. In these sports, weighing in one pound too many can mean facing a tougher opponent, or even outright disqualification. Manipulating body weight is often seen as a natural aspect of these sports, and behaviors such as calorie restriction, purging, use of laxatives, and extreme dehydration occur all too often. I see these behaviors all the time in my role as a college-level Athletic Trainer, and they’re certainly not limited to these sports. While recent studies suggest that these harmful behaviors do not tend to continue after the athlete retires, this is not always the case, and there have been many instances where athletes go too far, resulting in serious harm or even death.
In the end, there are a ton of eating disorder statistics, but the most important number is “one.” As in each person has his or her own unique story. Just as there is no perfect body, there is no cookie-cutter image of what an eating disorder looks like. It is important for all individuals to know how to spot disordered eating behaviors and when to seek help. I’m proud to lead a team dedicated to educating athletes and intervening when necessary. We need more of this in the world of high school, collegiate, and professional sports.
by Charlie Emerson MS, LAT, ATC
Charles is the the Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and leads the Eating Disorder Response Team within the Department of Athletics.
Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website to learn more about eating disorders in athletes.
To take a quick, confidential screening, click here.