Eating disorders have become a serious health concern. Athletes are no exception and in fact may be particularly vulnerable to one of these conditions.
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder are the most commonly recognized disturbances of eating and weight regulation. The finding that anorexia is associated with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder emphasizes the seriousness of these disorders.
Young women who participate in gymnastics, cheer and running events are particularly vulnerable. It has been reported that between 15 percent and 62 percent of female college athletes have disordered eating. This wide variation is indicative of how little is known about the prevalence of these conditions.
Another area of confusion is whether an eating disorder developes as a result of participation in a particular sport or if a person with an eating disorder choses a sport that will allow for this behavior.
The classic triad of low energy levels, delayed or absent menstrual periods and osteoporosis is a hallmark of these conditions. Considering 90 percent of bone development in women occurs before the age of 19, lifelong vulnerability to bone fractures are a consequence.
“Eating disorders are common in adolescent athletes training at a high-level. Some may go down a dangerous path trying to attain a supposed 'ideal' body type to enhance performance,” states Dr. Kathryn Ackerman, an endocrinologist specializing in conditions affecting female athletes. “While initial improvements in performance are often seen, these are unfortunately followed by more injuries, poorer recovery, more illnesses, and a decline in performance. Often the athlete struggles mentally and physically and the eating disorder that has developed gets overlooked.”
Denial on the part of athletes can play a big role in delaying diagnosis. Coaches and parents must be aware of early signs of an eating disorder and intervene immediately.
Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org