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Eating Disorders in Female Athletes

Dr Larry W. McDaniel Ed.D., Brittany Rabbitt, Allen Jackson, MS., Laura Gaudet Ph.D. discuss various female eating disorders.

Many people are not aware of eating disorders or how they may affect one's health. Most of the population is not informed about common eating disorders and how accepted they are among female athletes. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are two very common female eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is defined as a fear of becoming fat, having a distorted body image, excessive dieting, or emaciation. Bulimia nervosa is considered a disorder when an excessive amount of food is digested, followed by self-induced vomiting following a meal. Many of us need additional training to identify and assist those with eating disorders because if we do not, the disorder may cause death. Those with eating disorders feel shame and guilt for going to these extremes to maintain body image. Today's female athletes are always being told they need to lose weight or look better because our society thinks the female body should look. Female athletes are under a lot of pressure and resort to eating disorders hoping to improve sports performance and maintain athletic appearance. Too soon, the eating disorder becomes a way of life and cannot be stopped. The consequences of participating in eating disorders may become harmful to their health.

The Problem with Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are affecting female athletes, and there is a need to educate coaching staff and athletic trainers in the prevention, detection, and management of disordered eating in female athletes. The incidence of eating disorders varies widely, but the conditions continue to increase in female athletics. Bonci et al. (2008)[1] estimated that 35% of female athletes for anorexia nervosa, and 38% were at risk for bulimia nervosa. Byrne and McLean estimated that 31% of elite females in "thin-build" sports had clinical eating disorders, compared to 5.5% of the mainstream population. Sundot-Borgen and Torstveit estimated that 25% of female elite athletes in endurance, aesthetic, and weight-class sports had clinical eating disorders. These numbers are compared to 9% of the general population.

Dancers had higher rates of eating disorders. These athletes were more preoccupied with thoughts of eating and body image than non-athletes and non-dancers. Female collegiate dancers are at risk because they participate in dance and are college students (Carter & Rudd 2005)[2]. College women are more likely to develop disordered eating than other age groups because of the increased pressure and competition associated with the college environment. These females are in a new atmosphere, away from home, and these factors may amplify the risks. The sports with the highest number of eating disorders were ballet, gymnastics, and cheerleading (Torres-McGehee et al. 2009)[4]. "These eating disorders are complicated by dysfunction of multiple physiologic systems, nutritional deficiencies, and psychiatric diagnoses. The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia nervosa.

Anorexia nervosa is distinguished as the extreme of food restricting behaviours and manifests as a refusal to maintain normal body weight for age and height. Bulimia anorexia refers to a cycle of food restriction or fasting, followed by binging and purging. These disorders are characterized by bodyweight preoccupation, excessive self-evaluation of weight and shape, and an illusion of control gained by manipulating weight and dietary intake. These commonalities show us why 50% of patients with anorexia nervosa develop bulimic symptoms and some patients who start as bulimic develop anorexic symptoms as well" (Bonci et al. 2008)[1].

Recognizing and Preventing Eating Disorders

There are two ways to identify if a woman has an eating disorder. "The first one would be psychological and behavioural characteristics. Some examples would be dieting, self-critical- specifically concerning body weight, size and shape in addition to performance." (Bonci et al. 2008 Table 4.)[1] "The other way to detect an eating disorder is physical signs and symptoms, some of those examples would be: dehydration, hypotension, stress fractures, dental decay, hair loss, dry skin, brittle hair and nails, fatigue and abdominal pain." (Bonci et al. 2008 Table 4.)[1] "According to NCAA Bylaw 17.1.5 ("Mandatory Medical Examination"), before participating in any practice, competition or out-of-season conditioning activities, student-athletes who are beginning their initial season of eligibility shall be required to undergo a medical examination or evaluation administered or supervised by a physician."(Torres-McGehee et al. 2009 p. 7)[4]

Anoher way to prevent eating disorders in female athletes involves educating athletes about eating disorders. "Every year, there should be mandatory programs for the athletes, coaches, certified athletic trainers, and other athletic staff members. Some of the common questions that should be known are: Who is at risk? What are the barriers to identifying problems at an early stage? What are the signs, symptoms, and medical complications? What are the medical and performance consequences? What resources are available to help symptomatic athletes? How is treatment accessed? How should certified athletic trainers, coaches, teammates, and CSOs respond to an athlete suspected of having an eating disorder? What are the best preventive measures?

Athletes need to be educated on the importance of optimal nutrition to reduce the risk of medical and performance problems associated with prolonged energy and nutrient deprivation. Athletes also need education related to health and performance consequences of menstrual irregularities and the importance of seeking timely medical intervention at the first sign of abnormalities. The educational program should be evaluated routinely to determine the program's effectiveness in changing the knowledge level, attitudes, and behaviours of athletes as well as those participating in their health maintenance and performance enhancement."(Bonci et al. 2008 p. 7)[1] "Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, estimated at 10% within ten years of diagnosis. First is cardiac arrest, starvation, other medical complications, and suicide; the secondary risk is death.

In bulimia nervosa, the mortality rate is lower, approximately 1% within ten years of diagnosis. Nevertheless, the stats may be deceiving, as patients frequently move between diagnostic categories for their illness. As previously mentioned, 50% of patients with anorexia develop bulimic symptoms but still have the primary diagnosis of anorexia." (Bonci et al. 2008 p. 9)[1] Malnutrition is an unbalanced diet or poor nutrition. "Malnutrition decreases metabolic rate and causes abnormalities in the cardiovascular, reproductive, skeletal, thermoregulatory, gastrointestinal, and other systems. In the end, these abnormalities can be very dangerous and problematic for athletes who continue to train intensively in an energy-deficient or nutrient-deficient state." (Bonci et al. 2008 p. 9)[1]

Detecting Eating Disorders

To assist female athletes who may be at risk for eating disorders, early detection is essential, especially for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Self-reporting of eating disorders is rare among athletes due to secrecy, shame, denial, and fear of punishment; early detection requires developing and implementing a confidential and accessible screening program. One screening method is the Pre-participation Physical Examination. The PPE provides clinicians with an opportunity to screen for eating and bodyweight disturbances.

Other screening processes include medical history questionnaires which are a sensitive and productive screening tool. This questionnaire gathers useful medical history such as dietary restraint, bodyweight fluctuations, weight control behaviours, body weight and shapes, satisfaction or dissatisfaction, nutritional beliefs and practices, typical eating patterns, exercise habits, and musculoskeletal injuries with particular references to stress injuries involving bones.

In female athletes, additional questions are necessary to screen for menstrual dysfunction. These questions include the age of menarche, length, and frequency (number of cycles per year) of periods, the regularity of periods since menarche, date of last menstrual period, amount of flow, frequency and duration of amenorrhea, and use of oral contraceptive. (Bonci et al. 2008 p. 12)[1]

Managing Eating Disorders

Once the athlete is absorbed by disordered eating, most of them cannot overcome the problem alone. The female may think that this is the way to make life easier when it is not. At this stage developing the eating problem, they will need assistance from people close to them to overcome the eating problem. "The first process in overcoming an eating disorder is that the initial contact should come from an authority figure, someone that the athlete knows and trusts to ensure that the intervention is facilitated with sensitivity and compassion. There should be NO criticism at all. Once it is confirmed, the next step is to get a detailed medical history review and physical examination. After all of the tests and labs, the health care team will be able to figure out what the appropriate place for treatment will be and to make sure the best possible management for the athlete will be." (Bonci et al. 2008 p. 15)[1] It is easier for someone to accept help for a condition if they know the person, can trust them, and know that the person who is helping has expertise related to the eating disorder(s).

The female athletes may feel like everyone is against them during this process. This is why they are driven to eating disorders which are a 'quick' fix. The three factors contributing to eating disorders include genetics, social, and psychological problems. Psychological problems include low self-esteem, lack of self-control, depression, anxiety, loneliness, anger, or a history of abuse, physical or emotional. Social factors include: that our present culture believes that the 'perfect body' is thin and that people focus on the outer appearance of others instead of the inner qualities. The third factor is genetics which deals with family history.


Eating disorders are causing problems in the lives of female athletes. The pressure to be thin and athletic burden many women athletes. These factors may cause them to participate in binging or purging to maintain or lose weight. Anorexia and Bulimia are two of the most prevalent types of eating disorders. These disorders are serious diseases that may severely damage female bodies or even cause death. Eating disorders are very complex and complicated conditions that may start from various causes. Once eating disorders become a habit, the disorder takes over the person's life, creating a self-effecting cycle of physical or emotional damage.


  1. BONCI, C. et al. (2008) National Athletic Trainers' Association Position Statement: Preventing, Detecting, and Managing Disordered Eating in Athletes. Journal of Athletic Training, 43 (1), p. 80-109
  2. CARTER, J. and RUDD, N. (2005) Disordered Eating Assessment for College Student-Athletes. Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, 14 (1), p. 62-72
  3. GREENLEAF, C. et al. (2009) Female Collegiate Athletes: Prevalence of Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating Behaviours Journal of American College Health, 57 (5), p. 489-496
  4. TORRES-McGEHEE, T. et al. (2009) Body Image, Anthropometric Measures, and Eating-Disorder Prevalence in Auxiliary Unit Members. Journal of Athletic Training, 44 (4), p. 418-427

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • McDANIEL, L. et al. (2009) Eating Disorders in Female Athletes [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Authors

McDaniel Ed.D. is an Associate Professor of Exercise Science at Dakota State University Madison, SD. USA. Dr McDaniel was a First Team All-American football player (USA Football), a Hall of Fame Athlete, and Hall of Fame Wrestling Coach.

Allen Jackson, M. Ed. is an Assistant Professor of Physical Education and Health at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska (USA). He is well known for his presentations and publications at international conferences focusing on Leadership, Curriculum, and Health.

Laura Gaudet, Ph.D. is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Counselling, Psychology and Social Work at Chadron State College, Chadron NE. Dr Gaudet is well known for her publications and presentations at international conferences focusing on various topics in psychology.

Brittany Rabbitt is an outstanding student of Exercise Science at Dakota State University.