Who is at Risk of Disordered Eating?


Participation in sport does not cause disordered eating. Some athletes are vulnerable to disordered eating. Sports that have body weight, endurance and aesthetic demands can also increase the chances that an athlete will develop an eating disorder. Disordered eating may be more prevalent in:

  • Weight-class sports: boxing, wrestling, martial arts, rowing, equestrian events, sailing
  • Endurance sports: distance running, cycling, triathlon, swimming, cross-country skiing
  • Aesthetic-component sports: synchronized swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, dance, diving, cheerleading
  • Body Emphasis (non-judged): volleyball (beach and indoor), tennis, ski jumping

"Participation in sport is an easy way to hide disordered eating because of the misguided idea that weight loss improves performance. Excessive training is also thought to improve the athlete's performance. This makes it seem okay for an athlete to become obsessed with thinness"
(Thompson & Sherman (1993) Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders, Human Kinetics).


According to research, anywhere from 15% to 62% of female athletes deal with disordered eating in a variety of sports. In addition, 83% of male athletes are dissatisfied with their weight. Many people think of eating disorders as a "woman's problem," however, more and more males are being diagnosed with various eating and body image disorders. As women in the media have become slimmer over the last two decades, men have become more muscular and 'v-shaped'. As the "ideal" body shape has changed, it seems that men, particularly as teenagers and young adults, are feeling more body dissatisfaction than they ever have before. To achieve this ideal, many male athletes are trying desperately to change their natural body shapes, both for appearance and in an attempt to increase their performance.

There is a broad consensus, however, that eating disorders in males are clinically similar to, if not indistinguishable from, eating disorders in females.

Approximately 10% of eating disordered individuals coming to the attention of mental health professionals are male.

A national survey of 11,467 high school students and 60,861 adults revealed the following gender differences:

  • Among the adults, 38% of the women and 24% of the men were trying to lose weight.
  • Among high school students, 44% of the females and 15% of the males were attempting to lose weight.

Based on a questionnaire administered to 226 college students (98 males and 128 females) concerning weight, body shape, dieting, and exercise history, the authors found that 26% of the men and 48% of the women described themselves as overweight. Women dieted to lose weight whereas men usually exercised.

While some male athletes do suffer from anorexia and bulimia, many feel that they are underweight and want to gain weight and muscle in order to look the way they believe a man or athlete “should” look. Men also differ from women in that their eating disorders usually occur later in life, and they are more likely to use excessive exercise, rather than vomiting and laxatives, to control weight.

While eating disorders may develop for a variety of reasons, male athletes often take on these behaviours as a way to decrease the pressure and anxiety that comes from their competition. Using eating and exercise as a way of coping with stress can lead to dangerous results for athletes, and may be even more common than we think. Some reports have shown that 83% of male athletes are dissatisfied with their current weight. This suggests that eating disorders in male athletes has the potential to be a much bigger problem than health professionals, coaches, parents and athletes ever realized.

  • Body image concerns may be important predictors of eating disorders in males. Wertheim et al., (1992) found that a desire to be thinner was a more important predictor of weight loss behaviors than psychological or family variables, for both male and female adolescents.
  • Kearney-Cooke and Steichen-Asch (1990) found that the preferred body shape for contemporary men without eating disorders was the V-shaped body, whereas the eating-disordered group strove for the “lean, toned, thin” shape. The authors found that most of the men with eating disorders reported negative reactions from their peers. They reported being the last ones chosen for athletic teams and often cited being teased about their bodies as the times when they felt most ashamed of their bodies.