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Mental health aspects of eating disorders in athletes

By: Sam Gabriel & Punayaan

Abnormal and unhealthy eating that negatively affects a person's health and behavior is referred to as an eating disorder.

Most eating disorders have a strong tie with mental illness. It is believed that an eating disorder is not a conscious option but is considered as a serious mental illness.

The most common types of psychiatric disorders related to eating are:

Anorexia nervosa- A potential life threatening disorder which includes abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of weight or shape. Athletes with this disorder usually put in extreme efforts to maintain their weight and body shape. This could cause problems to their health and daily activities.

Athletes with this disorder try to extensively reduce calorie intake and try out various methods to lose weight like; using laxatives, pushing too much with exercises, vomiting after eating and starving even when underweight.

Bulimia nervosa- This eating disorder is equally life threatening too. Binge eating, purging and feeling a lack of control are some of the characteristics of athletes with this disorder. They also restrict eating during the day which eventually leads to binge eating and purging. They also feel disgusted, ashamed and embarrassed with over eating and tend to hide while binge eating. Athletes with this disorder try the same extensive methods as athletes with anorexia. They can be normal weight, overweight or obese.

Binge eating disorder- Consuming more than the intended quantity of food, lack of control and eating too much at a time are the issues faced by this disorder. The feelings of guilt, disgust and embarrassment that is seen in bulimia is also seen here. However, they do not try to compensate for this behavior with excessive exercise or purging. They are usually normal weight or obese.

Athletes are much more susceptible to eating disorders than the general population because of pressure, high levels of competition, performance anxiety and are mostly seen in weight sensitive sports.

Athletes weighing more than the optimal weight can perform less effectively. In weight-class sports, the athlete will not be able to compete in the event. In aesthetically judged sports, athletes face extreme pressure regarding their shape and body weight. Hence it's more likely for athletes to stress upon their diet.

Around 42% of elite female athletes in aesthetic sports and around 24% of female endurance athletes show symptoms of eating disorders. In total, around 33% of male athletes and 62% of female athletes can be affected with eating disorders.

Some symptoms seen in athletes having eating disorders are:

  • Decreased energy, muscle function, coordination & strength

  • Intolerance to exercise or exertion

  • Requiring longer recovery time between games, workouts

  • More prone to injury

  • Low blood pressure and slowed heart rate

  • Poor interaction between coaches and athletes

  • Either high or low consumption of water

  • Preoccupation with food, which may include continuously eating certain food and sometimes avoiding food

Note: Denial is often a behavior associated with eating disorders.

Do’s and don'ts in supporting an athlete with an eating disorder:

  • Do encourage the athlete to seek professional help

  • Don't be critical of an athlete's appearance and relate it to his/her sport.

  • Do show compassion, care and patience

  • Don't get frustrated and annoyed with an athlete's eating behavior

  • Do reiterate that eating disorders can be treated successfully

  • Don't try to guilt trip the athlete about his/her behavior, body or performance

  • Do be patient with the athlete’s recovery from the disorder

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