Eating Disorders in Athletics

Recently I was linked to an article by Sarah Crouch about her experiences with disordered eating within her career as an athlete. Many of her points resonated with me as things I have heard said about myself and fellow athletes, hense why I am writing this post to inform more of you about the prevalence of eating disorders in sports.

Did you know that the rate of eating disorders found in elite female athletes is 11% higher than in a female control group? Or that across a multitude of sports an average of 1 in 5 female athletes have, or show multiple tendencies for some sort of eating disorder?

In the world of athletics it is endurance and middle distance runners who are ‘most likely’ to suffer from an eating disorder as the size and shape of both women  and men will often be discussed an an indicator of suitability for the event. As Crouch mentions, words such as ‘strong’, ‘bulky’ and ‘powerful’ can often become derogatory to these athletes, who aspire to be like the ectomorph poster child of long distance running. Although over the years there has been a gradual integration of body types within the middle distances where quick finishers are becoming more prevalent, in longer races such as the marathon the ideal runner is still perceived as very thin and an extra pound or two is ‘excess baggage’ – hense the predicted decline in career length for many athletes.

Crouch continues to mention that many athletes have poor relationships with food and for female athletes this malnutrition and intensive training can lead to female athlete triad, a condition that ultimately can lead to infertility, high risk of stress fractures and the early onset on osteoporosis. This only adds to the list of medical abnormalities and diseases that largely affect elite athletes. Less threatening conditions such as sports induced asthma and heat illness (which is more common in teenage athletes due to the often truthful stereotype of sleep deprivation) as well as those with possibly more severe outcomes such as ventricular hypertrophy, chronic anemia and undiagnosed hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) which is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes.

Although there is no obvious cure for many of these medical conditions, eating disorders are one of the few things we can at least attempt to protect upcoming athletes from. We may not be able to change perceptions straight away but awareness may be the greatest weapon in this battle. Educating coaches, parents and even athletes themselves about healthy eating and disorders will not only allow them to progress their own careers safely but also be more perceptive of those who may need help. Breaking the stigma around eating disorders and allowing athletes to openly talk about their struggles could by the key to saving lives and careers.

“There are many ways of getting strong, sometimes talking is the best way” -Andre Agassi


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