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Athletes and Anorexia

Certain athletes more prone to eating disorders


Updated September 04, 2013

The self motivation and discipline that makes someone a great athlete can, unfortunately, predispose some athletes to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia tend to have a profoundly distorted body image and believe they are overweight despite extreme weight loss. They may lose 15 to 60 percent of their normal body weight by severely restricting their food intake or exercising excessively.

Athletes with anorexia are often dedicated to strict training and dietary guidelines which make it relatively easy for them to hide an eating disorder. They often use training schedules, competition, travel or any number of excuses not to eat. Initially this weight reduction may help their athletic performance, however, over time this continued starvation will lead to a variety of health problems.

Health Complications from Anorexia

Anorexia poses life-threatening complications for athletes, including:
  • Malnutrition<.
  • Abnormal Heart Rhythms (arrhythmias and bradycardia)
  • Low Blood Pressure.
  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte Imbalances
  • Amenorrhea (interruption of the menstrual cycle)
  • Osteoporosis (decreased bone mass)
  • Sleep disorders

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia

  • Excessive weight loss
  • Always thinking about food, calories, and body weight
  • Wearing layered clothing
  • Mood swings or depression
  • Inappropriate use of laxatives, enemas, or diuretics in order to lose weight
  • Avoiding activities that involve food

The Female Athlete Triad
The female athlete triad refers specifically to three related health problems often found in women athletes that includes 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.

Getting Help - Eating Disorder Treatment
Eating disorders in an athlete are serious and can become life-threatening if left untreated. Anorexia is a serious health concern that generally requires someone close to the athlete--a coach, teammate or family member--to recognize the warning signs and seek professional help. Identifying the type of eating disorder is essential to get the right help. About.com's guide to eating disorders offers the following advice for anyone seeking treatment and recovery from an eating disorder.

Eating Disorder Treatment


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

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