Patrick Danielson ‘21 

Sports Writer

Student athletes face immense challenges managing both academics and athletics. When mental health issues like eating disorders manifest in athletes, the student’s burden becomes even greater. “Eating disorders are so devastating… Nothing is worth suffering an eating disorder,” said Isabella Pallotto ‘19, former ballet dancer at Davidson. This semester, Pallotto has pursued the issue of eating disorders in her senior psychology thesis.

Though eating disorders occur in non-athelets as well, Palloto’s research specifically focuses on the intersection of athletics and disordered eating at Davidson.  Irregular eating behaviors can ruin a student athlete’s life. Some of the risks of these behaviors include organ damage, hospitalization, or death by compulsively altering caloric intake in one of several ways. “About 13.5% of male and female [college] athletes exhibit clinical or subclinical eating disorders compared to only 4.6% of non-athletes,” Pallotto writes, “40.2% of college undergraduates engaged in binge eating and 30.2% engaged in compensatory behaviors [in a studied month].” According to Davidson’s registered sports dietitian, Elizabeth Allred, “one in three female athletes are at risk for disordered eating.”

The most well-known eating disorders include bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, characterized by uncontrollable binge eating and intentionally limiting calorie intake, respectively. However, disordered eating is not as simple as “eating too much” or “eating too little” by habit. 

Another potential disorder, orthorexia, compels the person to eat the healthiest they believe they can. Obsessive exercise can even be considered a compensatory behavior, if motivated by a certain attitude. “You don’t know what [an athlete’s] attitude behind exercise is,” said Pallotto, who added: “I need to exercise to lose weight is more of the unhealthy [mindset]” for an athlete.

For an eating habit to be a clinically diagnosed eating disorder, it must meet several criteria as deemed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It calls for certain specifications of specific qualities, physically and mentally. To have moderate bulimia nervosa, for example, a person must exhibit binge eating behavior more than four times a week. For anorexia nervosa, a Body Mass Index (BMI) of sixteen or less is required. The qualities are uniform, meaning student athletes have the same benchmarks as non-athletes. Being an athlete can necessitate some muscle building, which weighs more than fat and thus contributes more to BMI, so it can be more difficult to be diagnosed with anorexia.

At Davidson, eating disorders are taken seriously in regard to mental and physical health. “We have an eating disorders team comprised of MDs, nurses, counselors, athletic trainers and dietitians” stated Allred, “We meet monthly.” Not mentioned in that list are the sports psychologists on staff and the student athlete alumni who come back to talk with current athletes.

The dietitians and counselors talk to different teams, spreading information about the subject and letting their presence be known. They also encourage students to come to them, allowing individual counselling sessions at the student’s request. Allred will also give out healthy snacks monthly in the athlete gym, to promote a healthy diet, and give out literature in the health center and in locker rooms to promote a healthy lifestyle.

Another program that the school is trying to incorporate is the Body Project, a nationwide program promoting body positivity and acceptance. “The Body Project was brought onto campus by the National Eating Disorder Association to help combat the prevalence of bulimia on college campuses among college women,” commented Mary Walters ‘19, one peer leader involved with the project. 

The methodology of the Body Project at Davidson is to schedule two 120-minute workshops some time apart for groups of women to come together to discuss body image and body positivity, both for athletes and non-athletes alike. The girls participate in different activities, such as “writing a letter to your younger self or a girl today about the pressures of having to look and perform a certain way,” described Walters.

The Body Project was brought onto campus last semester, but another, similar project is in the works to join it on campus. The Female Athlete Body, or FAB is also planned on coming to campus. It will promote healthy habits and body positivity within female athletic groups, and should work in tandem with the Body Project.

For both athletes and non-athletes, body image is a central factor in developing disturbed eating. “Sociocultural influences such as peers, parents, and the media covertly or overtly encourage the practice of appearance comparison to the thin-ideal,” writes Pallotto. Those three factors, peers, parents, and the media, are together called the Tripartite Influence Model of body image and eating disturbance. For athletes in lean, body-important individual sports like gymnastics and running, “there can be [inter-team] competition, more so than there might be on a team sport,” described Allred. That pressure combined with negative, critical comments from a coach or parent about an athlete’s body image and a promoted thin-ideal within television and other media “can heavily influence athletes’ perceptions and behaviors regarding their body.”