Do Fitness Competitions Trigger Eating Disorders?

Preparing for a fitness competition is physically and psychologically tough. It also has the potential to exacerbate or trigger pre-existing conditions such as eating disorders and body image dysmorphia.

Many women who enter the competition world have histories of body dissatisfaction or ‘abnormal’ eating behaviours. Coach Layne Norton estimates that ‘up to 70% of the women who come to him have had an eating disorder in the past.’[1] Likewise, the majority of the female competitors whom I interviewed for my research had previously suffered, or were currently suffering, from eating disorders. These included self-starvation, binge-eating and purging.

One eating disorder website states that abnormal patterns of eating are especially common among those ‘involved in sports that place great emphasis on the athlete to be thin’.[2] According to the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine (2004), ‘[f]emale athletes in aesthetic sports… were found to be at the highest risk for eating disorders’,[3] with 42% demonstrating abnormal eating behaviors.[4] Since competitors are judged solely on aesthetics, this data suggests that there is a high proportion of competitors who suffer from eating disorders.

My research confirms these findings, revealing that the competition industry attracts individuals with histories of abnormal eating. As one competitor states, ‘this industry appeals to those of us with poor food relationships.’

Competition preparation can trigger pre-existing conditions since, for eating disorder sufferers, relapse is common. One report concerning anorexia nervosa states that ‘within a year or less following discharge from treatment’ relapse occurs among ‘30 to 50 percent of weight-restored patients.’[5] For competitors with histories of disorderly eating, relapse can occur during preparation since competitions demand conformation to a physical ideal. Striving to meet this extreme ideal requires a strict nutritional regime with obsessive attention to detail that can trigger previous abnormal behaviours.

Women who come to the competition world with pre-existing eating disorders suffer during the ‘cutting’ phase, when their conditions may re-occur, or become worse. Those who have ‘endured eating disorders for a very long time’ find themselves slipping into old patterns of behaviour: ‘when you think you have it under control it makes its ugly presence again.’ One competitor admitted that preparing for her show exacerbated her eating disorders: ‘I restricted what I was eating so much I could not train properly, which then resulted in bingeing and being unhappy as by the time competition came around I wasn’t in as good shape as I would have hoped.’ Despite entering the competition world in order to control her body through training and healthy eating, one woman poignantly remarked that ‘old habits die hard.’

If you have suffered, or are currently suffering from an abnormal relationship with food, please think carefully about entering any kind of competition preparation. Competitions can be extremely triggering for anyone with a history of eating disorders: I found out the hard way.



[1] [accessed 16/02/15]

[2] Eating Disorders In Athletes, [accessed 8/01/15]

[3] [accessed 15/01/15]

[4] [accessed 20/01/15], referencing  Sungot-Borgen, J. Torstveit, M.K. (2004) Prevalence of ED in Elite Athletes is Higher than in the General Population. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 14(1), 25-32

[5] [accessed 19/01/15] Some 20 percent of anorectics in treatment remain chronically ill, going in and out of hospitals, while less than 50 percent go on to complete recovery. Partial remission of anorexia nervosa symptoms occurs in about 30 percent of patients.

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