Eating Disorders in Female College Athletes

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Reaching Female College Athletes:

Nutrition and Eating Disorders in Female College Athletes

Stephanie J. Watson, B.S.

Indiana State University

Nutrition and Eating Disorders in Female College Athletes
Athletes tend to be highly competitive, highly-achieving, and self-disciplined individuals (Mahan and Escott-Stump, 2000). Similar personality traits are seen in people with Anorexia Nervosa (AN). A lean body type is associated with enhanced strength and performance in many competitive sports, and this is true for both male and female athletes. In addition, female athletes have to deal with physical appearance. To attain low body weight, athletes may increase training and decrease food intake. We tend to think of athletes, especially those at collegiate or elite levels of competition as being “healthy” (Thompson and Sherman, 1999). This assumption of healthy may in part be created by their athletic performance or by what they are able and willing to endure through training and conditioning. This level of physical strictness gets interpreted as healthy. Yet in the name of commitment and competition, athletes engage in behaviors that are far from healthy, this has become of increasing concern as a growing subpopulation of athletes is suffering from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other disordered eating patterns. Background

Anorexia nervosa is defined by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) (2010) as a serious life-threatening disorder characterized by deliberate self-starvation and the following: a) Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height (<85% expected); b) Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat; even though underweight; c) A disturbance in the way one’s body weight/shape is experienced (self-evaluation, denial); d) Amenorrhea (absence of at least 3 consecutive periods). Anorexia nervosa is then subdivided into a restricting type and a binge eating/purging type. In addition to general disordered eating signs and symptoms, athletes suffering from anorexia nervosa often become so thin that they develop lanugo (fine hair on their body, often on the face, to help warm the body) (National Eating Disorders Association, 2010). Bulimia nervosa is (NEDA, 2010) a serious life-threatening disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating usually followed by self-induced vomiting or some form of purging as a means of controlling weight (e.g. vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, other medications, fasting, excessive exercise). One of the reasons that bulimia is common and sometimes hard to detect in athletes is that an intense training regimen can mask and coincide with purging. The case of avoiding detection may keep the athlete in denial as well. The Female Athlete Triad (the Triad), (NEDA, 2010) is a term coined in 1993 by the American College of Sports Medicine, refers to a syndrome commonly seen in athletic women. It involves the interrelated symptoms of disordered eating, menstrual irregularly, and low bone mass. Although the exact prevalence of the Triad is unknown, studies have reported disordered eating up to 62% and amenorrhea (absence of menstrual periods) in up to 66% of female athletes. Signs and Symptoms

Medical complications associated with disordered eating practices can affect multiple organ systems (Berner, 2009). The cardiovascular system may exhibit heart rhythm changes or low blood pressure. The endocrine system may be affected by low blood sugars, decreased hormone levels, menstrual dysfunction in women, delayed onset of puberty, and stunted skeletal growth in younger athletes. Athletes may experience changes in bowel regularity, such as constipation or abdominal pain. Fluid and electrolyte imbalances may occur, resulting in dehydration and muscle cramps. The athlete may develop anemia, hair loss, dry skin and nails, and dental decay can occur from regular purging (NEDA, 2010). Psychological and...
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