ُEating Disorders in sports: the real story behind Athletes' struggles

When one is invested in a sport, one will go the extra mile to excel at it, especially when one is an advanced athlete. A professional athlete will sleep a certain amount of hours for recovery, take their supplementation, and train well. If the sport heavily emphasizes the athlete's weight, the individual will direct most of their concentration into everything they consume. 

When athletic children are being directed on food choices and quantities, it impacts their view of food. These rigorous instructions may cause them to think more than twice before eating something or cause them to develop an unhealthy relationship with food; labeling food as good or bad, obsessing over the amount of calories being consumed, and restricting certain types of food as society views food as having some kind of moral value. All of this may eventually lead the athlete to develop an eating disorder. 

Eating Disorders and how they can affect athletes

According to the American psychiatric association, an eating disorder is a significant and ongoing disturbance in eating behaviors, along with painful thoughts and emotions. Eating disorders are not a choice, there are a lot of factors that can cause a person to develop one, such as genetics or the person’s biology and psychological reasons. Athletes are incredibly vulnerable to disordered eating as their sport may require them to stay in a specific figure or weight, consequently, they may start obsessing over their body and how it looks; hence why eating disorders affect athletes more than non-athletes. 

Studies show that 19% of male athletes and up to 45% of female athletes battle eating disorders. The problem we face nowadays is that eating disorders are very normalized in our society, people tend to praise restrictive eating; classifying food as good/bad and or engaging in calorie/macro counting. Sometimes it's really hard to tell whether someone is suffering from an eating disorder or not; but there are certain signs you can look to consider if a person may be suffering from an eating disorder or not. These signs include eating food that society labels as “healthy”, counting calories/macros, over training beyond the athletes' regular training session thus they start to consume less food than their energy output (which can lead to disturbance in the female menstrual cycle, consequently affecting the female’s metabolism ). 

What is over-exercise?

A common disordered behavior among professional athletes (sometimes regular athletes as well) is unconsciously overtraining. When athletes are forced to perform heavy training loads without enough time to rest and recover, it is said that they are overtraining. The following are signs of overtraining 

  • The long period of fatigue and exhaustion 
  • Lack of sleep or interrupted sleeping pattern 
  • Mood swings 
  • Losing interest in their passion 
  • No recovery from training or delayed ones 
  • Low energy 
  • Lower body weight
  • Constipation/diarrhea

Recovering from overtraining isn't impossible though it might take a while but it’s easy for the athlete to bounce back without harming themselves. The most important thing for an athlete that struggles with overtraining is to rest as it’s crucial for their recovery; rest can either be temporary or may include decreasing on training, it all depends on the intensity of which the athlete has been overtraining. During this period the athlete must take caution as not to under-eat or deprive themselves of proper nutrition. Since many athletes are accustomed to overachieving, this resting period may not be easy for them to accept, thus, seeking support from a mental health professional is crucial. The athlete may also need extra support from close people such as friends and family during this time, to provide support and reassurance regarding the athlete's decision to take a break. When getting back to training, the athlete needs to make sure to gradually get back to their sport and not rush into things; moreover, the athlete needs to start at half their working percentage and gradually increase until they return to their normal training session. Avoiding overtraining can also be done when the athlete starts to listen to how their body actually feels. Recording their training sessions in a diary may be a helpful way to notice how their body feels especially when they start to get back to their training routine and increase their intensity as well as document and acknowledge their progress. Making sure that the athlete cherishes their resting state as much as they do with their training can also help the athlete avoid overtraining. The athlete needs to understand that if they're falling back into unhealthy habits, they need to make sure to talk to their mental health provider.

Eating disorders types and sports

There are a variety of eating disorders and athletes can suffer from more than just one type. There are many different types of eating disorders but the article will discuss common EDs that athletes can suffer from. The first type is Anorexia nervosa, when a person starts to monitor their calorie intake as well as drastically lowering it and restricting certain food types. Athletes that are in weight-focused sports usually suffer from this type of eating disorder.  you can’t tell if a person is suffering from anorexia nervosa by monitoring their body weight because it isn’t really an indicator, some people have bigger body types and still suffer from anorexia nervosa, and others can engage in the same behavior of food restriction and end up losing a  huge amount of body weight.

Anorexia nervosa in athletes

Those who suffer from Anorexia Nervosa obsess over and memorize nutritional facts of food, skip meals and usually don’t have a proper ability to concentrate. Athletes who suffer from anorexia nervosa might over-exercise (exercise bulimia) or use exercise as a means of punishing themselves if they feel like they’ve overeaten or they purposely vomit the food they ate or use laxatives to do so. Body dysmorphia or distorted body image can also be the consequence of anorexia nervosa, since the person frequently body checks themselves, picking on every single thing they view as a flaw and seeing themselves differently than they actually are (usually worse). 

Bulimia nervosa in athletes

Another common type of eating disorder in athletes is bulimia nervosa. This is common within the athletic community since most athletes will focus on nourishing their body and they might sometimes end up eating more than they’re used to, or because of the amount of food restriction, they have engaged in. They end up binge eating, then use unhealthy means to get rid of the food they ate such as overtraining, intentional vomiting or even fasting. Athletes who suffer from this type of eating disorder may do common behaviors such as binge eating and directly going to the bathroom afterward (purging), food and body size usually occupy a huge deal of their brain, and they usually eat even after they get full, they feel guilty towards eating certain foods as well as label food as good/bad, and they also may have marks on their knuckles because of the purging behavior. 

Binge eating disorder in Athletes 

Binge eating disorder is another common eating disorder that athletes may suffer from. This occurs when the athlete deprives themselves of certain food groups, engages in calorie restriction, and eats very little compared to what their body requires; this causes the person suffering from that disorder to eating beyond fullness, hides food, always feel guilty or shameful when they eat and they also sometimes eat in secret. 

Effects of eating disorders on Athletes

Eating disorders can have long-term effects on athletes if they don’t seek treatment. Since athletes are usually overtraining, when they're also suffering from an eating disorder, they tend to experience malnutrition as well due to undereating; moreover, this causes their bodies to stop functioning properly. 

A common syndrome among female athletes is known to suffer from would be the “female athlete triad” where they get an irregular or disturbed menstrual cycle, lack available energy, and their bone mineral density is also reduced. Common effects of eating disorders on athletes would also include:

  • Increased injury risk due to lack of recovery and malnutrition
  • Declining performance in their  sport 
  • Mood swings affecting  their judgment
  • Ulcers and tooth decay especially if the athlete is suffering from bulimia
  • Impaired coordination ability 
  • Increased anxiety/depression

In conclusion, eating disorders can affect any person regardless of gender, age, body size and many other factors. Athletes are more prone to eating disorders due to the endless tasks they need to focus on such as their sleeping hours, their training sessions, and finally, their food intake as well as the type of food they eat. Eating disorders are mental health disorders and they’re not really a choice. Eating disorders can have long-term effects on athletes if they keep overtraining and restricting their calorie intake; moreover, this can cause them to have delayed recovery time, feel fatigued most of the time, and affect other facets of their life. Going through an eating disorder is difficult, recovery might take time but it will always be better than constantly having an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise; in the end, it’s really worth it and it’s going to be the best journey you’ll ever take. If you’re someone going through an eating disorder, remember that you are not alone, recovery is very possible, and seeking professional help is always a great idea.