Athletes and Anorexia Symptoms and Complications

Certain athletes are more prone to eating disorders

Athletes benefit from self-motivation and discipline. But unfortunately, those traits—which can help make someone a great athlete—also can predispose some athletes to anorexia nervosa and to other eating disorders.

Athletics and Anorexia

People with anorexia tend to have a profoundly distorted body image and believe they are overweight, even when in reality they're extremely thin and even undernourished. Anorexics may lose 15 to 60 percent of their normal body weight by severely restricting their food intake or exercising excessively.​

Athletes with anorexia are often dedicated to strict training and dietary guidelines which make it relatively easy for them to hide an eating disorder. They use training schedules, competition, travel or any number of excuses not to eat. Initially, this weight reduction may help their athletic performance, but over time this continued starvation will lead to a variety of health problems.

Two recent research studies found that adolescent athletes are at particular risk for anorexia and other eating disorders, especially if they're women (although adolescent boys and young men also are at risk).

One study found around 14% of young women athletes and 3% of young male athletes showed signs of having an eating disorder, most often anorexia.

Health Complications 

Anorexia poses life-threatening complications for athletes, including:

  • Malnutrition
  • Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias and bradycardia, which is a slow heart rate)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Amenorrhea (interruption of the menstrual cycle)
  • Osteoporosis (decreased bone mass)
  • Sleep disorders

Signs and Symptoms 

Someone who's anorexic may have some or many of the following symptoms:

  • Excessive weight loss
  • Always thinking about food, calories, and body weight
  • Wearing layered clothing (to hide weight loss)
  • Mood swings or depression
  • Inappropriate use of laxatives, enemas, or diuretics in order to lose weight
  • Avoiding activities that involve food

Girls Especially at Risk 

The American College of Sports Medicine says there are three related health problems often found in girls and young women who participate in sports:

  • Low energy (with or without an eating disorder)
  • Irregular or missing periods
  • Weak bones, which leads to an increased risk of stress fractures and osteoporosis

Young women who attempt to reduce body fat by extreme measures are at high risk for poor performance in exercise and sports, along with severe health complications.

Nutrient deficiencies and fluid/electrolyte imbalance from low food intake can lead to increased risk of fractures, illness, loss of fertility and serious medical conditions such as dehydration and starvation.

The medical complications of this triad involve almost every body function and include the cardiovascular, endocrine, reproductive, skeletal, gastrointestinal, renal, and central nervous systems.

Eating Disorder Treatment and Getting Help 

Eating disorders in an athlete are serious and can become life-threatening if left untreated. Anorexia is a serious health concern that generally requires someone close to the athlete — a coach, teammate or family member — to recognize the warning signs and seek professional help. Identifying the type of eating disorder is essential to get the right help.

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Article Sources
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  • Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. (ANRED), 2005. Eating Disorders - Patient Information. 
  • Martinsen M et al. Higher prevalence of eating disorders among adolescent elite athletes than controls. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2013 Jun;45(6):1188-97.
  • McLester CN et al. Susceptibility to eating disorders among collegiate female student-athletes. Journal of Athletic Training. 2014 May-Jun;49(3):406-10.