College athletes are at risk of developing eating disorders due to the physical and psychological stress that can result from competition.
More than one-third of female NCAA Division I athletes reported symptoms that placed them at risk for anorexia in a 1999 study. More than 90 percent of college athletic trainers working with female athletes reported working with someone with an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
“It is very common to see it, and I think it’s something that should be talked about more,” said Katie Leisher, a senior social work major and distance runner on Temple’s cross country and track and field teams who developed an eating disorder during high school. “It needs to be discussed more in order for it to be prevented and just to let other people know that there are treatment options out there.”
Leisher’s disorder began when she was a cheerleader and varied in intensity throughout her high school years. Now, she is in recovery and sometimes struggles with disordered eating but has developed healthy coping mechanisms.
In a 2011 Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy survey of female high school athletes in aesthetic sports like cheerleading, 41.5 percent of people reported disordered eating and were eight times more likely to incur an injury than those without.
“I was severely underweight and very depressed with much anxiety to the point I thought of nothing but food and losing weight,” Leisher said. “I would only eat certain foods and barely ate anything all day before practice.”
When she stopped cheerleading and began track as a high school sophomore, Leisher gained weight and implemented healthier habits to improve her running performance. But, her old habits crept up during her junior and senior years and she fell back into her struggle with disordered eating.
Perfectionist tendencies in athletes can contribute to eating disorders, according to a 2006 article by Stanford University Psychiatry professors.
“For athletes specifically, there’s a lot of pressure,” said Lori Lorditch, Student Health Services’ campus nutritionist and a registered dietician.
“They’re trying to perform the best that they can, but also perform academically and maintain a certain GPA [and] find time to study when they’re traveling across the country,” Lorditch added.
Sports requiring athletes to maintain certain body types, wear uniforms revealing their body shapes or participate in “weigh-ins” can put athletes at an even higher risk for eating disorders, Lorditch said. These factors can also contribute to struggles with body image.
In track, cross country, and other endurance sports, athletes can partake in diets or weight loss activities to attempt to run faster.
“Sometimes, individuals will think, ‘If I weigh less, then [I’ll] run faster or I’m going to perform better,’” Lorditch said. “That’s not always the case.”
For Leisher, her eating disorder was detrimental to her sport.
“Not eating enough has affected my running performances throughout college,” Leisher said. “There’s a fine line of working hard and working too hard for my body. I’ve learned more rest is important for me to perform my best.”
Leisher advises others who are struggling to ask for help.
“Talk to your coach about it,” she said. “Talk to a close teammate or friend, someone who understands, and then go from there. If you’re aware of it yourself, you need treatment or help so it doesn’t become worse.”
Students can seek help at Tuttleman Counseling Services’ Eating and Body Image Concerns Unit. They can also access other treatment centers in Philadelphia like Seeds of Hope, a service center that offers day treatments like group therapy and meal practice, or the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, which offers residential treatments and monitored meals for people seeking a higher level of care.
“[Student-athletes] need to know the dangers that they are doing to their body,” Lorditch said. “They need to really be educated on why they need to fuel their body properly and how they can do that in a healthful way.”
Impaired immune functions, difficulties concentrating, dizziness, anemia and muscle loss are just some symptoms that can result from disordered eating. For athletes with already low body-fat percentages, these symptoms may manifest quickly.
“I want my teammates and others to know that health and mental health comes first,” Leisher said. “I hope that any athlete going through this receives the support they deserve so they can do what they love without it holding them back.”