You may have heard of an eating disorder called anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia nervosa drastically restrict the amount of food they eat. They have a distorted view of their body and an intense fear of weight gain. Over time, this behavior can lead to serious complications.
Anorexia athletica is a similar type of disordered eating that’s associated with athletes.
Continue reading below to learn more about anorexia athletica, what may cause it, and how it’s treated.
Anorexia athletica is a type of disordered eating that impacts athletes. People with anorexia athletica take in a limited number of calories despite a high level of physical activity. This behavior leads to a very lean body type and low weight.
According to a publication by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), people with anorexia athletica have lost at least five percent of their healthy body weight due to calorie restriction and excessive exercise.
Someone with anorexia athletica may not believe that their behaviors are unhealthy. In fact, they may view them as normal in the context of the sport or activity in which they’re participating.
Those with anorexia athletica typically meet some, but not all, of the criteria for other eating disorders. Because of this, anorexia athletica is often classified as an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).
Athletes with anorexia athletica may be more prone to muscle and bone injuries. Additionally, they can also experience other complications, such as nutritional deficiencies and absent menstrual periods.
Let’s examine some of the symptoms that are associated with anorexia athletica.
Limited calorie intake
Similar to those with anorexia nervosa, people with anorexia athletica restrict their caloric intake. In this way, they can either lose weight or maintain an already low weight.
With anorexia athletica, calorie restriction often occurs in the form of a specialized diet. However, self-induced vomiting (purging) and misuse of laxatives or diuretics may also occur.
Limiting calorie intake can also have several noticeable effects, including:
- low energy levels or fatigue
- problems with concentration or focus
- lightheadedness or dizziness
- needing a longer recovery time between workouts, practices, or competitions
- more frequent injuries
High physical activity
People with anorexia athletica engage in a high level of physical activity. This can be in the form of exercise, training, or competition.
This excess physical activity places additional stress on the athlete’s body and can increase the risk of injury.
Focus on performance
Anorexia nervosa is associated with a distorted perception of body image or a fear of weight gain. It’s common for someone with anorexia nervosa to believe that they’re overweight when they’re actually very thin.
People with anorexia athletica can also be dissatisfied with their body shape and weight. However, behaviors such as restrictive diet and excessive exercise are often performance-driven.
Someone with anorexia athletica may have a perfectionist attitude in maintaining what’s perceived as peak physical condition, which they think will give them a competitive edge.
This attitude can be reinforced when they’re successful in their chosen activity while employing behaviors like limiting calories and increasing physical activity. As such, they may not believe that their behaviors are unhealthy.
Irregular periods in women
Women with anorexia athletica may experience irregular, missed, or absent periods. This happens due to the low body mass associated with anorexia athletica.
It’s likely that the pressure to maintain a specific physical condition plays a large role in the development of anorexia athletica.
One way this pressure can materialize is through frequent comments or scolding about body shape or weight. This can come from a variety of avenues, including:
- parents or other family members
- the media
Additionally, the push to meet certain standards of weight and body shape can be associated with the sport or activity itself. This can be present in many ways, such as:
- judging criteria
- uniforms that are tight or revealing
These pressures can lead an athlete to adopt strict weight control and training measures. Their goal becomes maintaining what they perceive to be an ideal body type for their chosen activity as well as meeting the expectations of those around them.
The exact prevalence of anorexia athletica is unclear. Generally speaking, the prevalence of eating disorders is higher in female athletes than in male athletes, but male athletes are still at risk.
A study of Division 1 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes found that more than one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa.
In weight class sports (wrestling, rowing, horse racing) and aesthetic sports (bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming, diving), about 33 percent of male athletes are affected. For female athletes in weight class and aesthetic sports, disordered eating occurs at estimates of up to 62 percent.
People that participate in sports or activities that are commonly associated with thinness or being a specific weight are more likely to develop anorexia athletica. Some examples include:
- figure skating
- swimming and diving
- ballet and other types of dance
- horseback riding
Other individual factors, such as genetics and personality, contribute to an individual’s risk for developing anorexia athletica. However, further research is needed into this area.
Orthorexia happens when someone becomes fixated on healthy eating. For example, someone with orthorexia may:
- compulsively check food labels and nutrition information
- completely cut out certain food groups from their diet, only eating foods that they’ve determined to be healthy or acceptable
- become anxious or distressed when acceptable food items aren’t available
- spend large amounts of time planning grocery shopping trips or meals
- show an increased interest in the health or nutritional value of the foods that others are eating
Unlike anorexia athletica, someone with orthorexia aims to promote optimum overall health through their dietary choices. Body image concerns may also be present in those with orthorexia.
Like anorexia athletica, orthorexia can lead to potentially dangerous weight loss and malnutrition. This stems from the dietary restrictions that an individual with orthorexia places upon themselves.
There’s no defined treatment regimen for anorexia athletica. However, it’s likely that treatment will involve several different disciplines.
Let’s examine some of the care that a person with anorexia athletica may receive.
Therapy is used to treat many types of eating disorders. This involves meeting with a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
During therapy, the athlete will be asked to examine the thought patterns and behaviors that are contributing to their condition. The therapist will help them to develop and practice coping strategies to help improve their condition.
Nutritional and fitness care
It’s important that the potentially harmful behaviors that are associated with anorexia athletica are directly addressed. This may involve dietitians, personal trainers, or both. These professionals can help by:
- focusing on optimizing nutrient intake while discouraging extreme dieting or weight loss measures
- adjusting the amount and the types of exercise that the athlete is doing
- restoring weight to healthy range or teaching healthy ways to manage weight
Medical care may be needed to address any physical complications that have occurred due to anorexia athletica. These can include things like injuries or osteoporosis.
Overall, the long-term outlook for anorexia athletica is considered to be good.
Early detection and treatment of anorexia athletica is important. This is because the condition can cause a variety of health complications, including:
- nutritional deficiencies
- missed or absent menstrual periods in women
- bone or muscle injuries, such as fractures or ligament tears
- arthritis, due to joint damage from excessive exercise
- electrolyte imbalances, which can lead to potentially dangerous arrhythmias
Anorexia athletica is a type of disordered eating that can affect athletes. It’s more common in sports that focus on a lean body type or maintaining a specific weight. Some examples include gymnastics, dancing, and wrestling.
People with anorexia athletica restrict their calorie intake and engage in excess exercise. These behaviors are often performance motivated, as the individual believes that having a certain weight or body type can give them a competitive edge.
Many of the attitudes associated with anorexia athletica can be linked with the views of coaches, parents, or the media. The culture of the sport itself can also contribute through factors like judging criteria and weigh-ins.
Treatment can involve psychological, medical, and dietary interventions. While the outlook is good, early detection is still important. This is because people with anorexia athletica can be more prone to complications like injury and osteoporosis.