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Eating Disorders in Athletes

Eating Disorders in Athletes

An alarming number of athletes suffer from eating disorders. Though it is difficult to quantify because so many choose not to seek treatment, it is estimated that one-third of female athletes suffer from a clinically diagnosed eating disorder.  While clinical eating disorders like Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa are common, an even larger number of athletes suffer from some form of disordered eating behavior. Male athletes are also at high risk for these types of conditions, which is why it is so important for all athletes to receive proper nutrition education.

This section will define the differences between disordered eating behaviors and clinical eating disorders and give a list of resources where athletes and their support system can go to get help.  However, it is not meant to diagnose or treat an eating disorder.

Disordered Eating Behavior

While clinical eating disorders are classified as complex medical disorders, disordered eating behaviors represent abnormal or atypical practices in relation to food. These behaviors may include restricting calories, misuse of diet pills and laxatives, binge eating, self-induced vomiting, skipping meals, or other types of ritualistic behaviors involved with food and eating.  These behaviors can be incredibly dangerous and may progress into even more serious conditions. Athletes also risk a decrease in performance.

Clinical Eating Disorders

The two most common clinical eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. These illnesses have complex symptoms where thoughts and behaviors that surround eating are severely disturbed. These clinically diagnosable conditions include both physical and emotional symptoms and require treatment for both issues. A well-qualified therapist and registered dietitian need to be part of the support team.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa has both a physical and psychological component. Those that suffer from the disease typically restrict calories and may or may not participate in binging and purging or abuse of diet pills and laxatives. 

Diagnostic Criteria for Anorexia Nervosa

  • Refusal to maintain body weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight
  • A disturbance in perception of weight or shape
  • Amenorrhea or absence of at least 3 consecutive menstrual cycles

Medical consequences of Anorexia Nervosa may include anemia, hormone imbalances, electrolyte imbalances, and heart problems and can result in death.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia affects approximately 20% of college women and is slightly more prevalent overall than Anorexia Nervosa. Those that suffer from this disease have a loss of control over the impulse to binge on food. Self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, and fasting are also common practices.

Diagnostic Criteria for Bulimia Nervosa

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating, at least 2x/week for 3 months
  • Lack of control over eating
  • Regular use of self-induced vomiting to control body weight
  • A persistent concern with body weight and shape

Medical consequences erosion of tooth enamel, esophageal damage, electrolyte imbalances, and heart failure.

Additional Resources

There are many resources available to schools and coaches as well as athletes and their families to help manage eating disorders.

Learn More!

Learn more about nutrition and nutrition for athletes in the Fitness Nutrition Coach program, the Sports Nutrition program, or the Certified Personal Fitness Chef program.