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Eating & Competing: The Dangers of Female Athletes’ Eating Disorders

Within athletics, a healthy balanced diet is important to help the competitor reach the next level. Most athletes are placed on some sort of diet to help them stay healthy and fully primed for competition. It is when this push for perfection is taken too far, that athletes are prodded down a path that is neither healthy, nor safe.

Athletes are at a higher risk for eating disorders, especially those who are in aesthetically important sports, such as gymnastics and figure skating. While these are traditionally female dominated sports, it is important to note that eating disorders do not only occur in women. Men are also at risk for eating disorders, however this article will focus solely on the struggles that female athletes face.

The terms “eating disorder” and “disordered eating” are not the same. They are similar, and related, but they do not mean the same thing. All eating disorders qualify as disordered eating, but not all disordered eating qualifies as an eating disorder. Within the DSM-5 which is the most current manual for disorders, listing the criteria to give a disorder a title, there are strict rules and criteria for something to qualify as an actual eating disorder, or to count it as disordered eating.

Why are sports such as gymnastics and figure skating at such a risk for eating disorders? The simple answer is that they are judged based on how they look in their costumes and uniforms. If the judges feel the competitor doesn’t have the desired look -- long, lean lines, thin, almost a childlike body -- then they have the potential to lower the competitor’s score. Simply because they didn’t fit the bill for what these sports are known for.

Not only are athletes at a higher risk for eating disorders, but many have died as a result. Olympic gymnast hopeful Christy Henrich died as a result of anorexia nervosa. In 1994, Sports Illustrated published an article written by Merrell Noden titled Dying to Win, which covered Henrich’s journey. Gymnasts are expected to be small; short, with childlike, underdeveloped bodies. At the time of being an elite competitor, Henrich was 4’10” and weighed 95 pounds. Small and very lightweight, but not uncommon in gymnastics. At the time of her death at the age of 22, Henrich weighed in at 61 pounds.

Once a person develops an eating disorder, like anorexia, their body begins to turn against them. Kidneys start to fail, their body loses the ability to digest food when they do eat, they have no energy to be fully functioning, and ultimately, if left untreated, the disorder can lead to their death. Bulimia nervosa is gaining recognition as being just as dangerous as anorexia nervosa. In this case, the individual may eat normally, or go into bouts of binge eating. As a result, they will immediately go purge the food they just ate. Something all disorders have in common is that the person is desperately unhappy with their body. With athletes, it may be that they feel if they lose that extra weight, then they will rise in competition ranks and are willing to do whatever it takes to get to that next level.

There is also a severe danger named the Female Athlete Triad which is a syndrome of three conditions; energy deficiency, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis. Disordered eating is a major concern in this syndrome. In general, the main cause is that there is an imbalance between the energy consumed, and the energy expended. This said, it is clear why disordered eating, or even an actual eating disorder, can be a factor in the the Female Athlete Triad.

However, even with this said, the main concern is amenorrhea. Often with female athletes in sports where they have a very low body fat percentage, they will have irregular menstrual cycles. With amenorrhea, there is an absence of a menstrual cycle for at least three months. Whether caused by low body fat that naturally may occur, or by a type of disordered eating, female athletes with either of these conditions are at high risk for the Female Athlete Triad. In osteoporosis, the athlete can experience low bone mass. Along with this comes an increased risk for fractures, including stress fractures, which happen all too often in sports like gymnastics where a high amount of stress is placed on the body.

In the Sports Illustrated article previously mentioned, up to 62% of female athletes, across many sports, suffer from an eating disorder. In sports where body image is everything, like gymnastics, figure skating, swimming, distance running, etc., athletes are constantly being monitored so they look the part. Often, the problem is that in order to achieve that desired body, many resort to drastic, unsafe means to attain “perfection.” While eating disorders are not limited to athletes, they are at a higher risk.

All in all, female athletes are at an increased risk for eating disorders simply because of the high amounts of pressure placed on them by judges, coaches, society, friends, or even themselves to look a certain way in order to be able to compete in the sport, especially endurance sports or aesthetic sports as in gymnastics and figure skating. It’s dangerous to instruct an athlete that in order to do better, they are to lose weight or look a certain way. In order to keep athletes healthy, safe, and in competition, the emphasis should be taken away from their body image, and more towards their skill level.

You can follow the author of this article on Twitter at @katieeliselee.

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