Eight million Americans are estimated to be suffering from eating disorders. It is not surprising that many of them are athletes.
There are three forms of eating disorders:
Anorexia nervosa — a distorted body image creating a belief of being overweight despite profound weight loss.
Bulimia — a cycle of binging and purging.
Compulsive exercise — excessive and addictive exercise in an attempt to control or lose weight.
Athletes are typically dedicated and highly motivated. These personality traits, when combined with the positive reinforcement of improved athletic performance, make athletes particularly susceptible to eating disorders. It also makes diagnosis more difficult.
Eating disorders are most often seen in sports that rely on individual performance and light weight. Some examples are: rowing, horse racing, ice skating, dance and wrestling. While the vast majority of athletes who suffer from eating disorders are women, it is not uncommon to diagnose it in men.
The female triad consists of three principal symptoms that suggest the presence of an eating disorder including: fatigue, menstrual irregularity and weak bones.
“Eating disorders are complex and often not simply the reaction to a comment made by a coach or judge about weight,” said Dr. Jeff Anderson, Director of Sports Medicine at the University of Connecticut. Anderson believes that athletes prone to an eating disorder are drawn to a particular sport.
Compulsive exercise can be seen in adults who discover the physical benefits of exercise, including weight loss. Symptoms of compulsive exercise include exercising despite injury, ignoring family and business obligations to exercise and a fear that missing a day of exercise will result in weight gain.
Parents, coaches and friends must be alert to the possibility of an eating disorder in an athlete and direct them to get appropriate attention.