Athletes tend to be highly competitive, high achieving, and self disciplined individuals who go to great lengths to excel in their sports. This personality type combined with the expectations of team mates and coaches as well as the spectators may make them at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder than the average person. Athletes that compete in sports that emphasize either 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
- horse racing
Both men and women are susceptible to eating disorders, although a greater percent of eating disorders are found in women, possibly due to the social pressures to be thin.
The three most common eating disorders found in athletes are anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive exercise.
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 binge-purge process results in loss of fluid and low potassium levels, which can cause extreme weakness, as well as dangerous and sometimes lethal heart rhythms.
Women athletes with eating disorders often fit into the so-called The Female Athlete Triad which is disordered eating, osteoporosis and loss of menses or amenorrhea. Many athletes mistakenly think they're not at risk for osteoporosis because they exercise, and exercise is known to strengthen bones. 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 to 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 or team mates, friends or family members who notice an athlete losing weight, purposelessly exercising outside their 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
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. The following pages provide more specific information about anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive exercise in athletes.