Quest for Perfection: Eating Disorders in Athletes

Peak performance is usually at the top of many competitive athlete's list. That's normal. Think of all the hours spent going through drills, time at the gym, and thinking of ways to get better. 

It's easy to caught up in the quest for perfection and not think about how it may be affecting one's overall health.

The reasons eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, occur are various; the most common reason is due to low self-esteem. Some athletes may feel that they are not good enough or think poorly of their appearance. They begin to believe that by losing weight, they will achieve perfection. 

Unfortunately, this is not true and what they are likely losing without proper nutrition would be muscle mass, immune function, and overall well being.

The National Eating Disorders Association states that there are about 10 million females and 1 million males suffering from an eating disorder. What is worse is that signs of anorexia or bulimia are not always obvious. And eating disorders often have underlying psychological issues that also need to be addressed to completely resolve their behaviors.

In a 2009, a study of Norwegian adolescent ?lite athletes reported that the most frequent reason for dieting in young girls was to improve their physical appearance, whereas boy athletes most often reported enhancing performance. A small portion of the athletes were dieting as directed by their coach.  These young athletes were also more likely to be dieting if they were overweight. (Br J Sports Med 2010;44:70--76.)

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, the following are risk factors in athletes:

  • Sports that emphasize appearance or weight requirements. For example: gymnastics, diving, bodybuilding or wrestling (wrestlers trying to "make weight").
  • Sports that focus on the individual rather than the entire team. For example: gymnastics, running, figure skating, dance or diving, versus teams sports like basketball or soccer.
  • Endurance sports such as: track and field, running, swimming.
  • Inaccurate belief that lower body weight will improve performance.
  • Training for a sport since childhood or being an elite athlete.
  • Low self-esteem, family dysfunction, families with eating disorders, chronic dieting, history of physical or sexual abuse, peer, family and cultural pressures to be thin, and other traumatic life experiences.
  • Coaches who focus only on success and performance rather than on the athlete as a whole person.
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