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The influence of sports on the development of eating disorders in female athletes.

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

A staggering 13.5% of athletes has been shown struggling with eating disorders. Among female athletes, approximately 45% were shown to suffer from some form of an eating disorder. Here, we seek to examine the influence of sports on the development of eating disorders in female athletes.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are conditions that affect an individual in terms of their behaviour towards food and body image. Essentially, it is a very serious physical and mental illness that is potentially life-threatening. Common examples of eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge-eating disorder.


Anorexia Nervosa

A person suffering from anorexia will severely limit the amount of food they eat, as they are convinced that a tiny amount of food will cause weight gain. They view themselves as fat and are afraid of weight gain. An anorexic may also resort to using laxatives or forcing themselves to vomit.

Bulimia Nervosa

A person suffering from Bulimia frequently binge on large amounts of food, which is typically more than what would normally be consumed. Followed by purging, which is usually caused by guilt, for eating too much, resulting in forcing themselves to vomit, using laxatives or even exercising excessively. Bulimia is essentially a cycle of binging and purging.

Binge-eating Disorder

Similar to Bulimia, except that a person suffering from Binge-eating Disorder doesn’t purge. Instead, they only undergo impulsive binging of food. Usually, binge eating is a way for an individual to ‘distress’ and seek comfort, but it comes with a drawback; guilt and possibly hating themselves.


Risk Factors

  • Dieting at an early age

Young athletes are very impressionable. When an authority figure, especially a coach, recommending to lose weight, they will see it as a requirement for their performance to improve.

  • To perform well for a Coach

A coach, just like parents, is a key figure in an athletes’ life, especially young athletes. Hence, athletes try to lose as much weight as they perceive being heavier as detrimental to their sporting performance.

  • Lack of knowledge and Guidance

Athletes with insufficient knowledge on dietary requirements, proper weight loss methods or those who acquire information from unreliable sources, such as friends, online and FAD diets, might result in eating disorders if the athletes feel that they need to rapidly lose weight to remain competitive.

  • Type of sport

Certain sports cause athletes to be more susceptible to Eating disorders. Such as diving, gymnastics, cheerleading, synchronized swimming etc. Athletes tend to view the extra weight as a factor that impairs their performances and might affect the judges' perception due to their appearances. Other sports such as sports with weight classes; wrestling and judo, are risk factors too. Athletes might resort to extreme dieting measures to achieve the desired weight category.

  • Injury

Eating disorders can be developed during the period when an athlete gets injured. Due to being unable to train at high levels, an athlete might turn to extreme dieting measures, either due to an emotionally traumatic event (getting injured) or simply wanting to remain in shape to stay competitive.


<a href="">Free Stock photos by Vecteezy</a>

Preventive measures

  • Educate

Athletes might lack knowledge on the proper ways of dieting, hence coaches and parents need to educate them. As much as possible, do not let the athletes learn online or in magazines unless it is a credible source.

  • Observe

Especially for coaches, watch for the athlete’s behaviour and learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of a possible eating disorder such as sudden weight loss, sudden decrease in performance, extreme fatigue etc. Often, athletes suffering from eating disorders will try to hide it, therefore it is important for a coach to observe their athletes for any changes in behaviour.

  • Emphasize and De-emphasize

Emphasize the importance of proper eating, the crucial role of nutrition in sports, the dangers of having low body weight and not eating.

De-emphasize weight being an indicator of performance. Weigh an athlete only when necessary (such as weight class sports).



Ghoch, M. E., et al. (2013). Eating disorders, physical fitness, and sport performance: a systematic review. Nutrients, 5:12

SUNDGOT-BORGEN, J., 1994. Risk and trigger factors for the development of eating disorders in female elite athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 26(4), pp.414???419. (2019). Civil And Environmental Research. doi: 10.7176/ceis/11-6-06

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