NutritionSports PerformanceWomen's Fitness

Anorexia Athletica: A sometimes inadvertant, unrecognized eating disorder


Eating disorders are complex medical/psychiatric illnesses that can seriously interfere with a person’s daily activities and may even eventually cause death (1, 2). They cause serious disturbance to one’s daily diet, and may start as a result of altering the diet for the purpose of gaining or losing weight. Although these disorders are much more prevalent in women, men are vulnerable as well. Eating disorders most commonly develop during adolescence or young adulthood, but can also develop later in life (2, 3, 4). Disorders seen today are vast and include but are not limited to Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Anorexia Athletica.

Anorexia Athletica is characterized by excessive and obsessive exercise, and is common in people who participate in sports where a lean, light body is considered advantageous. This if often accompanied by calorie restriction, which can result in malnutrition. I bring up Anorexia Athletica because it’s something I see quite often. I’ve been involved in triathlon since 2006, and through these years, I’ve noticed disordered eating is rampant among triathletes. The demands of the sport are vast. Living the life consists of early mornings of training, then working all day, with perhaps a workout during lunch or after, and for many, a busy family life. Weekends typically consist of racing or several hours of training. What I’ve noticed is that many triathletes don’t consume nearly enough calories to meet the demand placed on their bodies. I’m just as guilty as others. On a given training day, I would easily burn 4000 calories, with no clear plan for replenishment. We all know how difficult it is to equal that in consumption. You may say, “so you lose weight!” and yes, you’re right, but eventually there is a cost. At some point, you have no more weight to lose, and you fall into the pit of malnutrition and overtraining, or your body starts devouring muscle tissue to compensate, making it seem very hard to maintain that lean, shredded look. The ability to recover starts to wane in the face of malnutrition, and eventually injury results. Many don’t even realize they’re doing this to themselves, and it’s so widely accepted or not understood that others don’t either. The easy solve for this is to offset your calorie burn by eating accordingly: more. Give your body the nutrients and energy it needs to recover and adapt to the training demands you put on it.

With any eating disorder, early detection is one of the best ways to achieve a full recovery. If someone is suspected of having an eating disorder, an early, positive intervention is warranted in a manner that is sensitive and private, while remaining direct and straight-forward (3, 5). In the case of a vast sporting community, whose members are highly pro-active, involved, and tuned to their health, proper education goes a very long way.

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  1. Insel P, Ross D, McMahon K, Bernstein M. Nutrition.4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers; 2011
  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Eating disorders. Available at:
  3. National Eating Disorders Association. NEDA Toolkit for Coaches and Athletic Trainers. 2010. Accessed May 15, 2012.
  4. Newell C. Early recognition of eating disorders. Practice Nurse [serial online]. June 25, 2010; 39 (12):20-25. Available from: CINAHL with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed May 11, 2012.
  5. Johnson, MD. Disordered Eating In Active and Athletic Women. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 1994; 13:2
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The Author

DeWayne Smith, MS, NASM-CES, PES, FNS

DeWayne Smith, MS, NASM-CES, PES, FNS

DeWayne A. Smith, holds a Master’s of Science in Exercise Science and Health Promotion with an emphasis in Sport Psychology from the California University of Pennsylvania, and a Bachelors of Science in Athletic Training and Sports Medicine from Concord University in West Virginia. He holds the NASM CES, PES, FNS, GFS, WLS credentials, and was the lead creator and contributor of the Youth Exercise Specialization (YES). In addition, he’s contributed thousands of answers to the initiative, and continues to write for his own website

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