Playing sports is a great way to boost your self-esteem, stay healthy and learn the value of teamwork. However, not all sport stressors are positive. The immense pressure to win and maintain your body shape can lead to a toxic lifestyle. Athletic competition can also be a factor contributing to severe psychological and physical stress. In many sports where body weight is associated with performance or aesthetics, the pressure of low body weight overshadows other health factors.

In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa. Moreover, the research collectively showed that more than 40 percent of women engaged in aesthetic sports to a professional level, like dance and gymnastics, show signs of an eating disorder.

What are eating disorders?

An eating disorder is a mental illness. It is characterized as an illness in which the people suffering experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviours and related thoughts and emotions. People with eating disorders typically become pre-occupied with food and their body weight. It is often accompanied by a loss of control of eating habits, leading to overeating and fluctuating body weight.

The focus of attention should be on athletes who manipulate their eating behaviours and body weight with the belief that it will enhance their performance. Primary prevention involves education and instruction to prevent extreme dieting and eating disorder onset.

The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Most eating disorders involve focusing too much on your body, they can furthermore lead to dangerous eating behaviours. These behaviours can significantly impact your body’s ability to get appropriate nutrition. Eating disorders can harm the heart, digestive system, bones, and teeth and mouth, and lead to other diseases.

Women are at a greater risk of developing eating disorders more often than men.

When does one have an eating disorder?

Disordered eating which is not considered as a disease may be the first step to developing an actual eating disorder. It is typically described as an unhealthy diet where people worry about calories and their body; they train obsessively, and perhaps show initial signs of being malnourished.

Women in sports who are aesthetic and endurance athletes are most at risk of eating disorders. Sports such as cycling, dance and high jump, often perceive a slender body and a very low-fat percentage is crucial for optimal performance. Here the expectation of a defined, trim body may lead to an exaggerated preoccupation with body shape, diet, and weight loss.

Research shows that eating disorders often occur in sports where body aesthetic plays a significant role. Such sports are gymnastics, weight-bearing activities, running and martial arts where you fight opponents of the same weight category.

Some 42 percent of elite female athletes in aesthetic sports and 24 percent of female endurance athletes show symptoms of having an eating disorder, according to a 2004 Norwegian study. Elsewhere, 21-45 percent of high-level competitive swimmers have disordered eating and seven percent have an actual eating disorder.

A 2013 study of first-year high-school athletes in Norway reported an increased incidence of eating disorders (seven percent) compared with a control group (2.3 percent) and a higher prevalence among girls than boys.

Female Athletes At A Greater Risk Than Men

These eating disorder trends have been repeatedly found in several studies from all around the world. They reveal that women in sports are more susceptible to eating disorders than their male colleagues.

In the US, women in sports who were runners have reported a higher level of body dissatisfaction and symptoms of eating disorders than male runners, according to a 2016 study of 400 runners. A high degree of body dissatisfaction was linked to an increased risk of eating disorders.

In the study, it was established that women with eating disorder symptoms reported feeling fatter than their female colleagues who did not suffer from an eating disorder, even though there were no real differences in either body weight or shape between the two groups.

Research shows that eating disorders often occur in sports where body aesthetic plays a significant role. Such sports are gymnastics, weight-bearing activities, running and martial arts where you fight opponents of the same weight category.

The Female Athlete Triad

The Female Athlete Triad includes disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis. The lack of nutrition resulting from disordered eating can cause the loss of several or more consecutive periods.  This, in turn, leads to calcium and bone loss, putting the athlete at risk for fractures of the bones.  Each of these conditions is a medical concern. Together they create serious health risks that may be life-threatening.

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Professional Athletes More At Risk Than Amateur Athletes

An Australian study from 2002 investigated 263 elite athletes and compared them to 263 non-athletes matched on gender and age. They showed that the top athletes experienced pressure to be slim and reported more eating disorder symptoms compared to non-athletes.

This was true, 15 percent of elite female athletes met the criteria for anorexia and bulimia. Whereas the other 16 percent showed signs of having an eating disorder. Among the non-athletes, the numbers were much lower. None of the male non-athletes suffered from eating disorders, compared with six percent of elite male athletes.

Factors That Cause Eating Disorders

Women in sports comparing their bodies with their competitors might be one of the triggering factors of the eating disorder. Research shows that women athletes view their bodies more negatively than the general population.

Another factor can be low self-esteem, high body ideals, performance anxiety, and pressure of meeting expectations of trainers and friends. In addition to this, the overvalued belief that lower body weight will improve performance can act as another factor. Consequently, coaches focus primarily on success and performance rather than on the athlete as a person.

These risk factors play a key role in the vulnerability of women in sports to develop an eating disorder. They can be summarised as societal pressure which emphasises thinness, performance anxiety, and negative self-appraisal of athletic achievement.

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“For so long, I thought I was the problem. To me, the silence of others meant that pushing my body past its healthy limits was the only way. But I know we were all scared, and fear keeps us silent.” — @runmarycain Mary Cain's exposé of abuse she suffered while training as a young pro runner is shocking and upsetting. A decorated coach at Nike, Alberto Salazar, pressured her to lose weight to run faster. This is an inexcusable abuse of power. Salazar had nearly every resource available to boost Mary’s performance, yet chose to emphasize a strategy that risked her health. And it didn't even fucking work. It drove her to slow races, self-harm and quitting the sport. Mary’s story resonates with the amateur and collegiate running community all too well. We've experienced the same thing. Being shamed for our size. Told that our poor performances were because of weight. And that we were lucky to be here, so we shouldn’t complain. That this is part of the sport. I competed for a D1 NCAA track team for all four years of college. While this was a great experience, it did leave me with a disordered view of my body and food. 11 years after I entered the NCCA, I still feel the strain that I’m not small enough. I know this is not factual and rational, but my mindset is a work in progress. I do not know any teammates who emerged from the NCAA system unaffected by the pressure to be thinner. It may seem like the entire running community is already woke to this issue, but please listen: IT IS WILD how deep this goes. It is still happening. Girls still need help. College programs today are still preaching thinner is faster, and telling women to lose weight, or that low weight and lost periods aren’t a problem. College sports are not the only offenders here, but they have to do better. They, along with the whole running world, have the opportunity and obligation to make a positive impact in young people’s lives. I am thankful that Mary Cain and many others have faced their fear and brought their stories to light. This is how we change.

A post shared by Cate Barrett (@beingcate) on

Real Life Experiences Of Female Athlete Facing Eating Disorders

Elite runner Mary Cain said in the New York Times in November 2019 that her experience with the coaching system at the now-shuttered Nike Oregon Project encouraged unhealthy levels of weight loss, leading to five broken bones, mental health problems. Her experience was of eating too few calories, having a dangerously low bone density, and missing her periods. Cain’s experience sheds light upon what seems to be a disturbingly common condition among female athletes.

Cate Barrett, a former Division 1 track athlete wrote on Instagram that “college programs today are still preaching thinner is fast, and telling women to lose weight or that low weight and lost periods aren’t a problem.”

Women in sports comparing their bodies with their competitors might be one of the triggering factors of the eating disorder. Research shows that women athletes view their bodies more negatively than the general population.

Andrea Toppin, a former runner at Iowa State, wrote on Twitter that her teammate and boyfriend at the time told her she needed to lose 20 pounds in order to contribute to the team. “All I cared about was the number on the scale and pleasing my boyfriend until I got my first awful stress fracture after two muscular injuries and two years of not having a period,” she wrote.

Prevention Strategies For Dealing With Eating Disorders:

  • The American Academy of Paediatrics, the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission, and the American College of Sports Medicine has recommended that national and international sports federations put policies and procedures in place to eliminate potentially harmful weight-loss practices.
  • The focus of attention should be on athletes who manipulate their eating behaviours and body weight with the belief that it will enhance their performance. Primary prevention involves education and instruction to prevent extreme dieting and eating disorder onset.
  • Primary prevention should be initiated as early as 9–11 years of age.
  • The development and implementation of educational programs promote self-acceptance, healthy eating, in athletes are effective in eating disorder prevention.
  • Prevention strategies also include de-emphasising weight and body composition, promoting healthy eating behaviours, working to de-stigmatise disordered eating, recognising and encouraging athletes’ individuality, and fostering a team environment.

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Image credits: bangordailynews.com

Gaurika Taneja is an intern with SheThePeople.TV

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