It’s Time to Talk: Warning Signs in Athletes

There are certain characteristics of an elite athlete that make them great. Some of these include a desire to reach (near-)perfection, no matter the cost; the ability to work tirelessly and relentlessly to achieve goals; exhibit discipline on and off the court or field; be competitive in every aspect of life; and sacrifice some of life’s pleasures (food, leisure, socialization) in order to accomplish success.

There is a fine line with athletes who teeter on the cusp of needing help with mental health issues because the demands within sports could turn problematic if gone too far. In the sports world, some of these things are normal and expected. Coaches, parents, and athletes themselves push them to become more than what they were yesterday… and we accept that to be a common part of athletics. In many cases, the growth is healthy. In others, they may not even realize they need help.

Eating disorders and disordered behavior doesn’t just fall into the categories of eating and not eating, or keeping it down and throwing it up. Sure, we might be able to recognize anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa better than, say, orthorexia (an obsession with “healthy” eating) which may be more common among elite athletes. We may not be able to recognize an athlete with an exercise compulsion when we demand they workout every day to achieve a certain standard of fitness.

Sometimes athletes don’t even realize they have a problem because, in their mind, they’re doing what is expected or asked of them. To them, their dangerous behaviors seem normal. That’s part of the difficulty in identifying an eating disorder in an athlete.

There are an incredible amount of ways that eating disorders are presented, but there is one thing that unites most every problematic eating disordered behavior. That is secrecy. It’s the way people who suffer with eating disorders “get away” with it for so long… because other people don’t really know about it. And, no one says anything, thus prolonging the disease’s effect.

These signs aren’t the only things that might point to a problem, and they might not even be a red flag in some instances. For example, it’s important to note that athletes are typically busy, high-achieving individuals. It’s not always a problem that they say “no” to going out to eat or squeezing in a solo training session. BUT – look for patterns and, possibly, the motivation behind their behaviors.

Additionally, just because an athlete may not meet all the criteria for a specific eating disorder doesn’t mean their relationship with food and exercise is not problematic. Take an honest look. If you recognize more than a couple of these signs in yourself or someone you know, it may be time to seek help.


  • Fatigue. Clearly being an athlete is tiring, but do you notice a change? If what was once easy for an athlete now leaves them out of breath, or a training session leaves them too tired to do anything else for the day, this may cause for concern that he or she has not been fueling and/or resting properly.
  • Increased recovery time. To go along with fatigue, perhaps an athlete is not recovering from workouts/practices/games like he or she used to. It takes them longer than everyone else, possibly because they haven’t been eating enough to repair their muscles. Poor recovery time is also a sign of over-training.
  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain. If an athlete has suddenly lost or gained a significant amount of weight in a relatively short time period, it’s time to say something. Even if it’s not an eating disorder, it’s not normal and could be an underlying issue.
  • Inability to focus. When a person is consumed with tracking calories in and calories burned, body checking, worried about when they can/have to eat again, scheduling exercise, bathroom trips, and more, they will seem a little more distracted than usual. Their inability or difficulty focusing can appear in school, while driving, in conversation, and during practice or competition. What’s usually easy for them to understand will now need to be repeated or take them longer to process. The brain alone takes a great amount of calories to function properly.
  • Increased concern about body including shape, fitness, fear of weight gain and/or being or having fat. You may see them checking how their clothes or uniform fits, or weighing themselves before and after meals and/or workouts (or, even daily can be enough for concern).
  • Increased awareness and concern about food. Perhaps they will become more rigid about the types of food they’re eating (fat-free, low-carb), eliminate entire food groups, have “safe foods,” or have rules about eating times, portions, and food rituals. For athletes who work out and practice in a group setting, this can also look like only eating before/after training sessions (“See, I eat!” or eating for instant energy), or never eating around training times (fear of gaining mass, for example). He/she may comment on foods being “good” or “bad” or want to cook for others, but not partake in the meal themselves.
  • Isolation and avoidance of social situations. If there is a fear of food including someone commenting on what you’re eating or a perceived pressure of eating, a person might want to eat or spend mealtimes alone. He or she might avoid getting close to other people in fear of them realizing their disordered eating behaviors.
  • Excuses… to train/eat alone, get out of social events involving food, why they’ve lost/gained weight, etc.
  • Excessive exercise. This is a tricky one with athletes because many who are driven have the “more is better” mentality when it comes to fitness. Look at the motivation – is the added exercise skill-based, or is it to burn calories or meet a certain self-imposed exercise goal? Over-training can lead to burnout and injury. It’s also a cause for concern if an athlete is injured but finds ways to exercise in order to burn calories and fears weight gain.
  • Female athletes lose their periods, or the regularity in which they have their periods. There’s a hormone imbalance going on. (Non-scientifically speaking…) On the ranking of importance of bodily functions and protecting organs, menstruation shuts down before the liver, heart, etc.
  • Going to the bathroom after meals to rid themselves of calories.
  • Having periods of fasting followed by over-eating. This is the restriction-binge cycle that occurs when a person eats too little and then is over-hungry and binges… only to “punish” themselves or “make up for it” by fasting again.

Do you see how some of these signs can be normal, but could also signal danger? Don’t turn away if some of these pop up in your life or someone you know on a regular basis. Having a difficult conversation about your concerns for someone could help them take steps to a more balanced lifestyle, seek help, and could save their life.

The content produced by ACED is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have.

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