Tiger Bites staff is concerned with the student athlete as a whole person and have been trained to identify potential warning signs that may indicate disordered eating behavior. Athletes are two to three times more likely than the general population to develop disordered eating. A recent report from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) found the prevalence of disordered eating to be as high as 20% in adolescent and adult female elite athletes, and as high as 8% in adult and adolescent male elite athletes. Disordered eating behaviors occur in athletes participating in all sports, at all competition levels, and in all athlete body types. Eating disorders can be difficult to detect and can have devastating long term effects.
Athletes and Eating Disorders: 5 Key Warning Signs
1). Eating too little, exercising or training too hard – Fueling for sport is the cornerstone of peak performance, injury prevention and overall wellness. Yet attempts to “optimize” the athlete’s diet can easily become too rigid and result in disordered eating behaviors. Calorie counting, restricting specific foods or following strict diets can contribute to inadequate nutritional intake. Similarly, athletes are vulnerable to overtraining. Exercise places stress on the body. Excessive stress without rest and proper nourishment increases the risk for injury.
2). Increased focus on weight, shape, size and appearance – Discontent or focus on one’s weight, shape, size and appearance is typically followed by increased urges to eat less food, exercise more and gain control over appearance. Coupled with perfectionism, anxiety and persistent feelings of inadequacy, these patterns of behavior can frequently precipitate an eating disorder.
3). Underweight or notable weight loss – Slight shifts in body weight are expected when athletes move in and out of their competitive season. Rapid shifts in weight or prolonged periods of remaining underweight reflect inadequate food intake relative to energy needs for sport. Don’t buy into the “thin to win” mentality! An energy deficit for an athlete is extremely serious and could be another sign of an eating disorder. To maintain function without fuel, the body will rob from its internal systems. Over time, function and performance are reduced and eventually the body will operate at a fraction of its full capacity.
4). Abnormal sex hormone cycles – Abnormal sex hormone cycles often signal insufficient energy intake, a hallmark of an eating disorder. The body perceives the energy deficit as a threat to survival and will sacrifice vitality and reproduction for short term energy. For males, abnormal sex hormone cycles typically manifest in low testosterone. Symptoms include fatigue, lack of energy, reduced muscle mass and strength, decreased bone mass, mood changes, disrupted sleep, low sex drive and hair loss. For females, abnormal sex hormone cycles are further characterized by missed, irregular or shorter menstrual periods. Birth control pills can mask symptoms, so females are encouraged to talk with their doctor.
5). Stress fractures and overuse injuries – Although the age-old saying of “No pain, no gain,” frequently pervades the sports environment, injuries are not a sign of dedication to sport. In fact, stress fractures and overuse injuries can indicate that something is very wrong, like an undetected eating disorder. The combination of insufficient food and nutrient intake, high level training and low body weight reduces the strength of bones over time and naturally increases the risk for injuries. This risk is preventable with appropriate eating plans and exercise programming.
While not every case of energy deficiency or injury in athletics is the direct result of an eating disorder, exploration of early warning signs is essential, especially since eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.