Female Athletes Are More Prone To Eating Disorders

Armen Hareyan's picture

Female athletes are more prone to eating disorders when they're involved in sports where there's pressure to have a certain body type, weigh a certain amount, or when success depends on their appearance as much as their performance.

"As with anyone with an eating disorder, female athletes use unhealthy methods to meet legitimate emotional needs," said Juliet Zuercher, registered dietitian and the director of nutrition services at Remuda Programs for Eating Disorders.

Research shows that female athletes in judged sports have a 13 percent incidence of eating disorders compared to just a 3 percent incidence in the general population. Factors that contribute to risk for developing an eating disorder include: endurance sports, sports with weight categories, individual sports, "lean" sports and sports with revealing clothing. Additionally, in one NCAA study, a group of female athletes report wanting 13 percent body fat when the mean of the group was 15.4 percent, already below the minimum healthy range of 17-25 percent body fat for female athletes. This desire for unhealthy levels of body fat is a hallmark of eating disorders.

"Sport participation can complicate the identification of an eating disorder and many athletes may not admit to a problem for fear of losing playing time or displeasing others," adds Zuercher. "Many times, restricting calories and excessive exercise are viewed as 'normal' in a sport. But, over time, the eating disorder will have a negative impact on the athlete's health and performance."

Athletes struggling with an eating disorder who are persistently injured or have overall declining health may be addicted to or abusing exercise and/or their training schedule. Other signs that an athlete may be suffering from an eating disorder include:

-- Significant weight loss of more than 15 percent total body weight


-- Chronic fatigue

-- Fainting and/or dizziness

-- Hair loss

-- Amenorrhea

-- Loss of relationships

-- Lack of interest in other life activities

-- Overall poor balance mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually

"An athlete who struggles with an eating disorder doesn't have to automatically give up their sport," said Zuercher. "We must look at each athlete individually and help them and their 'sport' family to make an informed decision on when to return to training and competition after treatment. When we understand more about the motive an athlete has for having an eating disorder, we are better equipped to help them and those supporting them."