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Eating Disorders in Female Athletes

Female runner on track

Its National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. When we hear the term “eating disorders,” we think of anorexia nervosa or bulimia. These are at the extreme end of a spectrum of unhealthy eating patterns. More subtle forms of disordered eating include:

  • Food restriction: Limiting your overall food intake or there are many foods you just won’t eat because you think they’re “bad” for you and will make you fat.
  • Rigid food patterns: You eat exactly the same thing every day. For example, you eat a bagel every morning, yogurt and salad each day for lunch and meatless pasta at dinnertime. You will have significant nutrient gaps with this kind of strict eating.
  • Inadequate protein diet: You only occasionally eat meat, poultry, fish, dairy products or other good protein sources like beans, legumes, nuts or soy products.
  • Thought patterns: Such as preoccupation with food, dissatisfaction with one’s body, excessive fear of becoming fat and a distorted body image (You think you’re fat, but in reality you’re thin or healthy.)
  • Prolonged fasting
  • Binge eating (out-of-control eating) and purging (use of diet pills, diuretics or laxatives to control weight or vomiting because you feel guilty about food you’ve eaten)

Disordered eating is one of the three health problems (in addition to loss of monthly period and bone loss) that make up the Female Athlete Triad. Disordered patterns of eating deprive your body of needed protein and calories, eventually causing you to lose your monthly period. This is detrimental not only for energy and performance, but for strong bones and good health. Clinical experience shows that the sooner you seek help for eating behaviors that are out of control, the easier it will be to get you back on track. Female Athlete Triad has been observed in women athletes who participate in sports where leanness is perceived to improve performance. Sometimes it occurs in girls or women who are unaware that their food choices or excessive physical activity are having a negative effect on their health. They become trapped in a cycle of dangerous food patterns and obsessive training trying to achieve a low and unrealistic body weight. Unfortunately, these women don’t realize that they are heading for significant health problems and compromised athletic performance. It is important to consult with a doctor, nutritionist and counselor.

It is also crucial not to overtrain. Fear of getting fat often motivates women to obsessively spend hours at the gym. You may have to force yourself to cut back or take a rest day, but remember that your body needs time to recover. Have an exercise specialist evaluate your workout routine to advise you about an appropriate training volume based on both performance and health goals. There are many more elements to athletic success than body fat and weight.

Topics: Featured, Nutrition
The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.