Eating disorders and athletes: What to watch for

An eating disorder is a condition when a person suffers from an unhealthy body image paired with harmful eating practices.

By: Sanford Health News .

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Maintaining a healthy body weight is crucial for overall good health. At the core of this philosophy lies a balanced diet and plenty of physical activity.

Although that rule is true for everyone, it holds a special meaning to athletes. The desire for an athlete to improve performance is usually a good trait; but, in some cases, it may be taken too far.

A major cause of concern comes from the mentality that thinness is directly related to an athlete’s self-worth and the ability to become better at his or her sport. At this point, it is time to seek help.

What is an eating disorder?

In general, an eating disorder is a condition when a person suffers from an unhealthy body image paired with harmful eating practices. The three classifications of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa (restrict food with or without binge-purge cycles), bulimia nervosa (binge-purge cycles) or eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS).

They are often connected with psychological disorders including anxiety, depression and over compulsive behavior.

Current research is unable to accurately show how prevalent eating disorders are within the athletic population. Data suggest that the number of athletes affected by this disease could range anywhere between 1 percent and 62 percent in females and between zero and 57 percent in males.

Participating in athletics is demanding on the body. The body requires a substantial amount of energy and other nutrients to perform repeatedly or for a long time, and even more to fully recover from that physical activity.

This underscores why nutrition counseling is an important aspect in successful training and competition. The body receives most of its energy from carbohydrates and fat. Protein is also needed to help build and repair muscle.

Athletes who inappropriately restrict the amount of food they eat will hinder their training and athletic performance by decreasing muscle mass and allowing fatigue to set in more quickly. A diet too low in calories can also make it much more difficult to reach the minimum level of nutrients needed to stay healthy.

Calcium, vitamin B-12 and iron are common nutrient deficiencies in diets that are restricting food. Because the body is weak from the lack of energy and other nutrients, injury risk increases.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of an eating disorder can vary greatly by individual. Restricting food is not the only sign of an eating disorder so it is important to be aware of other characteristics. The American Psychiatric Association provides this list to help identify a person with an eating disorder:

  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • A connection between body shape and size to self-worth
  • A weight loss that drops him or her below 85 percent of a normal weight for age and height and the inability to see the danger of the extreme weight loss
  • In females, the loss of menstruation for longer than three months
  • Episodes of binge eating, which is eating an unusually large amount of food, and a purge following, which may be self-induced vomiting, misusing laxatives or over-exercising
  • Binge eating and purging at least twice a week for three months

In athletes, over-exercising is more difficult to recognize when you compare them to non athletes. If the motivation to exercise changes from improving athletic performance to only thinking about burning calories from the previous meal, then it may be a sign of something else going on, such as an eating disorder.

The health consequences related to an eating disorder include a disruption in normal hormone levels, depression, weakened bones, malnutrition, tooth decay, stomach problems, infertility in women, damage to the heart and possibly death.

Successful recovery from this disease requires intervention from a team of professionals, typically including a physician, a mental health counselor and a dietitian. An appointment with any one of those providers will be able to offer assistance and make referrals.