Anorexia Athletica: Causes, Complications, and Treatment

Every year, thousands of amateur and professional athletes struggle with anorexia athletica, a lesser-known eating disorder, and variation of anorexia nervosa. Like most major eating disorders, people with anorexia athletica are often described as having an obsessive relationship with exercise, body weight, and food. Although it is similar to anorexia nervosa, anorexia athletica is characterized by a more compulsive focus on the interplay between physical exercise and losing weight.

Why are Athletes Especially Vulnerable to Anorexia Athletica?

In many ways, it’s not surprising that athletes have a high risk of developing an eating disorder. Think about it for a second. Athletes must respond to unique physical and mental pressures on a daily basis, affecting not only their professional careers but also their relationship with their body’s weight and appearance.

In some athletic disciplines, such as running or rock climbing, having a lower body weight confers a tangible competitive advantage. However, in other disciplines, such as boxing or gymnastics, the demands of the sport or its regulatory authority will force athletes to drop or gain weight intermittently throughout the year. As a result, dedicated athletes are far more likely to experience one or more of the following eating disorder risk factors:

  • Heightened body awareness
  • Compulsive physical training
  • Expectation of high achievement
  • Public pressure to display and maintain a specific body type

What Causes Anorexia Athletica?

Like many eating disorders, there is more than one cause for anorexia athletica. To emphasize the multicausal nature of this eating disorder, we’ve listed several of the most common underlying causes of anorexia athletica:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Childhood trauma or abuse
  • Bullying during adolescence
  • Poor familial relationships
  • Inability to cope with stress
  • Perfectionistic or narcissistic personality disorder
  • Non-suicidal self-injury disorder (NSSI)
  • Genetic predispositions toward unhealthy exercise habits

Anorexia Athletica Complications

In addition to more general anorexia nervosa complications, anorexia athletica also leads to long-term hormone depletion and electrolyte imbalances, thereby increasing the likelihood of an athlete suffering one or more serious overtraining injuries. Because their body is in a state of malnourishment, injuries incurred by individuals with anorexia athletica usually either worsen overtime or take far longer than usual to heal.

Anorexia Athletica Treatment

Like many other eating disorders, treatment options for anorexia athletica will usually involve some form of nutritional counseling and extended psychological therapy. In some cases, athletes with anorexia athletica may need to take a break from exercising in order to identify what triggers and perpetuates their eating disorder.

Sources: NASM, Center for Discovery, The Meadow Glade, McCallum Place

Photo: Pixabay

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