Low self esteem causes eating disorders in athletes

By Shannon King
February 21, 2002

The terms athlete and sports have come to be synonymous with the labels healthy and fit. What happens when athletes, trying to live up to these standards, turn to dangerous patterns in diet and exercise? A relatively new classification of eating disorder called anorexia athletica, has become a major complication in team sports. Some of the warning signs of this increasingly problematic disease are compulsive or constant exercising and fanaticism about weight.

According to Andra Riccio, certified athletic trainer, “The type of person who tends to develop such a disorder are usually overachievers, really smart and try to be successful at everything they do. These people put pressure on themselves to be perfect.”

According to a 1992 American College of Sports Medicine study, eating disorders affected 62 percent of females in sports such as figure skating, gymnastics and cross-country running. Five percent of young male athletes develop anorexia athletica most commonly in wrestling and cross-country running. Problems start to develop in situations where athletes are judged specifically on technical or artistic merit and are under enormous pressure to be thin.

The size of a gymnast has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. In 1976, the average gymnast was 5’3″ and weighed 105 pounds. In 1992, the size of a female gymnast was 4’9″ and weighed only 88 pounds. Riccio said, “Females tend to use their athletic training in addition to their regular diet and exercise routine. They end up doing extra exercise, don’t eat and the cycle just continues.”

Women are not the only ones to have problems in this area, men also fall victim to the pressure to make weight or appear physically fit. Wrestling along with cross-country running are two of the major areas where athletes are most at risk. In wrestling, men are subject to weigh-ins and quick weight loss. They may binge eat before a match to load up on carbohydrates and then purge to make weight in a lower weight class. Spit cups are not uncommon among wrestlers the day of a match. Every ounce can make a difference on the scale.

Some of these athletes can take their training to the point that it takes their life. Two wrestlers, one from North Carolina and the other from Wisconsin died after wearing rubber sweat suits while working out in hot rooms. One died from kidney failure and heart malfunction while trying to lose four pounds. The other died after suffering a cardiac arrest after he worked out on an exercise bike and refused to drink liquids to replenish the fluids that his body so desperately needed. He was only trying to lose six pounds.

There are many differences between men and women athletes when it comes to how their bodies will react to various degrees of exercise. Women feel as if they have to work out extra hard to lose those extra couple of pounds. There are several reasons for this. One is that men have more lean muscle tissue than women do, meaning that males have higher metabolic rates than females because muscle burns more calories faster than fat does. Women generally have more body fat than men. “One of the biggest differences between men and women athletes is that men will usually stop [their harmful exercise regimes] when the season is over, while women will keep it up,” Riccio said.

So why does someone develop anorexia athletica? According to Riccio, “Some of the things that can trigger an athlete to work out extra hard are comments made by a person that the athlete respects, such as a coach, that are important to the individual.” She also said that most of the time, athletics might just aggravate risk factors that already exist in an individual, including emotional stress and striving for academic success.

If it is suspected that an athlete has this disorder, ignoring the problem is out of the question. If left untreated it can lead to the loss of a menstrual cycle in females, kidney and other organ failure, cardiac arrest and death. When confronting the person, do not blame them for the problem; it could end up making things worse not better. A coach should be involved in the treatment process. If he or she is aware of the problem, changes can be made in practices and the way that players are talked to or lectured about their appearance.

All athletes are at risk for this type of disease, but according to Riccio, “Most of the problems with this disorder can be traced back to low self esteem within individual athletes.”

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Shannon King

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