According to the National Eating Disorders Association, around 0.3 to 0.4 percent of women struggle with anorexia, and 3.5 percent of women struggle with binge eating disorder. While these numbers may seem small, they’re no joke — especially if you’re an athlete.
In fact, a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes are at a greater risk of developing an eating disorder. While being an athlete doesn’t guarantee that you’ll struggle to have a nutritive relationship with food, it’s important to be aware of the types of common eating disorders among female athletes.
The most prevalent eating disorders in female athletes
Eating disorders are mental illnesses characterized by disturbances in eating patterns, a preoccupation with weight and body image, and abnormal, recurrent thoughts about food, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
There are different types of eating disorders that could affect anyone, athlete or not, female or male. In this article we’ll take a closer look at anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and more, with special attention to how they each manifest in the lives of athletes.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, anorexia nervosa is a condition in which a person’s perception of herself is inaccurate, leading to extreme weight loss and an overwhelming fear of becoming fat.
Someone who struggles with anorexia will weigh herself repeatedly, count calories, eating very few calories and working out excessively.
What athletes need to know: Most eating disorders are an attempt to gain control, and someone who is affected by anorexia will often try to harness control through intense and frequent workouts. Since this is a necessary component of many competitive athletes, it can be harder to spot (in yourself or in a friend).
While athletes are required by their sport to spend a significant amount of time exercising, they must also supplement with a greater calorie intake. If you’re concerned about anorexia, pay attention to behavior at mealtimes — and not just what someone says about her own eating habits, but what she does.
Bulimia is characterized by overeating and purging either through vomiting or using laxatives. According to Mayo Clinic, these bouts of binging and purging are followed by strong mood changes and feelings of guilt and depression.
Generally, these behaviors happen in secret, so they are hard to identify. However, a preoccupation with self-image, feeling a loss of control and forcing oneself to exercise excessively are all signs that can be noticed by others.
What athletes need to know: Bulimia is one of the most common eating disorders among female athletes. Unlike anorexia, a person who struggles with bulimia will eat large amounts of food. While this is typical for athletes after a workout or competition, secret purging soon follows.
Bulimia can make it so that your body has insufficient calories to function well. This can lead to more injuries, stress fractures and frail bones. It may make someone feel sluggish during workouts. It can also affect your mood, your perception of your athletic performance and your overall life satisfaction.
Intermittent fasting is a dieting trend that requires a person to spend long chunks of time fasting, or limit calories for hours or days. While intermittent fasting itself is not an eating disorder, it can quickly lead to disordered eating and cause physical and mental harm.
What athletes need to know: Intermittent fasting is never a smart idea when you’re in the heat of training for a sport. Intense and frequent exercise demands a constant intake of calories. Athletes should always eat when hungry.
Some sports encourage periods of fasting. Dancers and cheerleaders may fast before a competition to look slim. Sports that divide individuals into weight classes encourage fasting for weigh-ins. If you’re prone to disordered eating, you’ll want to have strong mental health support or leave the sport behind.
Female athlete triad syndrome
This is a lesser known, but serious eating disorder in female athletes. It is most common for sports that are cardio-heavy and require a lean physique, such as running, gymnastics, ballet, figure skating and so on.
For female athlete triad syndrome, individuals may not necessarily eat less than recommended, but the calories consumed are not sufficient to sustain a high level of exercise. Thus, to someone on the outside, this eating disorder may be hidden.
What athletes need to know: The first sign that someone is struggling with female athlete triad syndrome is a lack of energy. A person may attend a sports practice only to remain stationary for the rest of the day due to exhaustion, or start to decline in performance.
If you think you might be struggling with this eating disorder, you will also want to pay attention to menstrual cycles. It’s common for women with this condition to skip menstruation for three months or more. Bone loss is also common, and tests can be done to determine how severely a woman’s bones have been affected.
Learning to embrace recovery
If you or a friend has been impacted by any of these eating disorders in female athletes, there is hope for recovery. At Seeds of Hope, you can find resources and support to heal from a distorted self-image.