In their quests for gold, both professional and amateur athletes are more susceptible to eating disorders — something organizations across Canada are hoping to help combat during Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
Compulsive exercising often goes hand-in-hand with an eating disorder, says Sue Huff, executive director of Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta.
"Sometimes, eating disorders begin with a very good intention of getting healthy and it just sort of goes off the rails," Huff told CBC's Radio Active Thursday. "Even just losing a significant amount of weight can turn on an eating disorder in their brain."
While studies show up to 80 per cent of anorexia cases are related to genetics, athletes develop eating disorders for other reasons as well, Huff said.
"There's always environmental, societal, genetic and usually some sort of trigger or something that happens in that person's life … that can be the inciting moment," she said.
"But it really is a stew, so many ingredients coming together."
Athletes are more prone to some eating disorders, she said, because there are many similarities between a determined athlete and someone with an eating disorder.
"That really strong focus — that ability to really zero in on a target and go for that gold — that is actually similar in people with eating disorders," Huff said.
Often the culture around fitness can be inadvertently supportive of disordered thinking about body image, food and exercise.
With some sports like boxing or wrestling requiring athletes to make weight, Huff said the pressure to be constantly restricting or trying to drop weight quickly can ignite a fuse that a person is already genetically predisposed to an eating disorder.
'Sometimes, eating disorders begin with a very good intention of getting healthy and it just sort of goes off the rails.' - Sue Huff
There are high levels of shame around eating disorders among athletes, Huff said.
"It makes it very difficult to come forward."
That's where the Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta comes in.
"There are some really severe risks involved in that activity and we want to make sure people have the best medical information," Huff said. "We'll tell you how to [drop weight] without damaging your organs.
"It's not about how you look, it's about what's going on inside."