Objective: We compared eating disorder (ED) characteristics and treatment seeking behaviors between self-identified competitive athletes and non-athletes in a large, community-based sample.
Method: During the 2018 National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, 23,920 respondents, 14.7% of whom identified as competitive athletes, completed the National Eating Disorders Association online screen. Data were collected on demographics, disordered eating behaviors, probable ED diagnosis/risk, treatment history, and intent to seek treatment.
Results: The sample was predominantly White (81.8%), female (90.3%), and between 13 and 24 years (82.6%). Over 86% met criteria for an ED/subthreshold ED, and of those, only 2.5% were in treatment. Suicidal ideation was reported in over half of the sample. Athletes reported a significantly greater likelihood of engaging in and more frequent excessive exercise episodes than non-athletes. Athletes also reported a significantly lower likelihood of engaging in and less frequent binge-eating episodes compared with non-athletes. Athletes were more likely to screen positive for an ED/subthreshold ED than non-athletes, but percentages across all probable ED diagnoses were similar. No significant differences between athletes and non-athletes emerged on treatment history or intention to seek treatment post-screen (less than 30%).
Discussion: Although the distribution of probable ED diagnoses was similar in athletes and non-athletes, symptom profiles related to disordered eating behavior engagement and frequency may differ. Athletes may be less likely to seek treatment due to stigma, accessibility, and sport-specific barriers. Future work should directly connect survey respondents to tailored treatment tools and increase motivation to seek treatment.