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Eating Disorders in Athletes

Some athletes are more likely to develop eating disorders

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Updated September 04, 2013

Athletes tend to be highly competitive and disciplined individuals who go to great lengths to excel in their sports. This personality type combined with the expectations of teammates and coaches as well as spectators may make them at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder than the average person.

Athletes who compete in sports that emphasize appearance or require speed, lightness, agility and quickness are at higher risk for developing an eating disorder than are non-athletes or athletes in sports that require muscle mass and bulk.

Eating disorders are most common in athletes that participate in the following sports:

  • ballet and other dance
  • figure skating
  • gymnastics
  • running
  • swimming
  • rowing
  • horse racing
  • wrestling

Both men and women are susceptible to eating disorders, although a greater percent of eating disorders are found in women. The three most common eating disorders found in athletes are:

The real threat to an athlete with an eating disorder is the extreme stress placed upon the body. The very practice of self starvation, purging or obsessive exercise has a detrimental effect on performance. The process of binging and purging results in loss of fluid and low potassium levels, which can cause extreme weakness, as well as dangerous and sometimes lethal heart rhythms.

The Female Athlete Triad
Women athletes with eating disorders often fit into a condition called the female athlete triad, a combination of:

This attempt to reduce body fat by extreme measures not only leads to decreased exercise performance, but can lead to severe health complications. Nutrient deficiencies and fluid/electrolyte imbalance from low food intake can lead to increased risk of fractures, illness, loss of reproductive function and serious medical conditions such as dehydration, and starvation. The medical complications of this triad involve almost every body function and include the cardiovascular, endocrine, reproductive, skeletal, gastrointestinal, renal, and central nervous systems.

Also see: The American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand on the Female Athlete Triad

Many athletes mistakenly think they're not at risk for osteoporosis because they exercise and exercise is known to strengthen bones. However, research shows that exercise alone does not prevent bone loss. Irreversible bone loss starts within six months to two years of the loss of menses. Another negative consequence of eating disorders is the close association with depression.

Identifying athletes with an eating disorder is not easy. They are often secretive or blame their eating and exercise regimen on their training goals. More patients are identified by perceptive coaches, teammates, friends or family members who notice an athlete losing weight, exercising beyond their normal training regimen or becoming overly preoccupied with food and weight.

Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder

  • Preoccupation with food and weight
  • Repeatedly expressed concerns about being fat
  • Increasing criticism of one's body
  • Frequent eating alone
  • Use of laxatives
  • Trips to the bathroom during or following meals
  • Continuous drinking of diet soda or water
  • Compulsive, excessive exercise
  • Complaining of always being cold

Getting Help - Eating Disorder Treatment
Eating disorders in an athlete are serious and can become life-threatening if left untreated. Identifying the type of eating disorder is essential to get the right help. About.com's Guide to Eating Disorders offers the following eating disorder treatment and recovery resources.

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Source

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. (ANRED), 2005. Eating Disorders - Patient Information.

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