Anorexia Athletica – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Anorexia athletica

Anorexia athletica is best translated as sports anorexia . Athletes starve to perform better, but this puts their health at risk.

What is anorexia athletica?

Sports anorexia tends to occur in those disciplines where being thin (rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating) or light weight (ski jumping, long-distance running, triathlon) is an advantage. Sports in which the weight class is decisive (boxing, judo, wrestling) are also affected.

Trying to lose weight can turn into an eating disorder . Ski jumpers and girls and women who practice rhythmic gymnastics are particularly at risk. Anorexia athletica is not only harmful to health, but also reduces performance. Poor food intake affects concentration and causes circulatory problems and low blood pressure .

Anemia and a weakened immune system set in. The reduction in body weight leads to a decrease in bone density and this entails an increased risk of injury. When athletes train hard and lose too much weight, menstruation can stop (secondary amenorrhea).


Athletes are more prone to eating disorders than other people, and body weight plays a special role in some sports. Cyclists, as well as long-distance runners, mountain runners and ski jumpers benefit from being lighter. In the sports of gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics and figure skating, low weight promotes mobility.

In addition, the evaluation of the appearance of the athletes is crucial for success. As slimness is equated with beauty and grace, athletes begin to starve to conform to aesthetic ideals. Women, especially girls and young women, are more prone to anorexia athletica than men.

In addition, there must be a tendency to starve in order for athletes to develop disturbed eating habits. The causes are not only to be found in the described requirements of the respective sport, but also in individual personality traits (pronounced ambition, low self-esteem ).

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

Fluctuations in weight and severe weight loss are clear symptoms. Conspicuous eating habits and the compulsion to exercise are indications that both professional athletes and ambitious recreational athletes should take seriously.

Young people are often affected by anorexia athletica: if puberty does not set in or is delayed , this can be a sign of anorexia . The often-repeated assertion that they don’t want to get fat and the attempt to hide or downplay the disordered eating behavior are further alarm signals among young athletes.

It has already been mentioned that severe weight loss can lead to a decrease in bone density and osteoporosis , as well as menstrual disorders in girls and women . The insufficient supply of nutrients also manifests itself in changes in the skin structure, in brittle nails, brittle hair and hair loss . Imbalance , susceptibility to illness and drops in performance are also signs that the energy balance is disturbed.

Diagnosis & History

Sports anorexia begins inconspicuously and is hardly noticed by those around you, since a low weight and low body fat percentage are characteristic of the majority of athletes. A low BMI (Body Mass Index) does not always have to be a sign of anorexia athletica, but can also be due to predisposition or other factors.

However, when food cravings occur, with meals in excess of 1500 calories, the eating disorder becomes undeniable. Questionnaires and tests about eating habits as well as continuous weight checks and attention to signs of osteoporosis enable a reliable diagnosis.


Electrolyte imbalances can occur as a complication of anorexia athletica . The effects are very different. Severe electrolyte imbalances can lead to quantitative disorders of consciousness up to and including coma, but can also cause seizures and cardiac arrhythmia . In addition, functional disorders of nerves, muscles and the digestive tract are possible.

Adequate food intake and a reduction in physical activity are necessary to prevent these complications. Excessive exercise increases the risk of injury. Simultaneously restricting food intake can lead to fatigue and poor concentration, which make sports injuries even more likely.

Other physical complications of anorexia athletica arise from behaviors that affect other aspects of the eating disorder. Laxative abuse can also cause electrolyte imbalance and long-term damage to the digestive system. Objective binge eating with large amounts of food and reactive eating can also cause cardiovascular symptoms. The so-called refeeding syndrome includes various cardiovascular problems that can be life-threatening in rare cases.

In addition, many people who suffer from anorexia athletica suffer from nutrient deficiencies. This can lead to both physical and psychological problems. A common long-term consequence is osteoporosis , which is due to calcium deficiency . The cognitive impairments are usually reversible. These include problems with concentration and memory.

Eating disorders often do not occur alone, but are often accompanied by other psychological problems. It can be related to another disorder (such as a personality disorder, anxiety disorder , obsessive -compulsive disorder, or mood disorder) or to individual syndromes and symptoms.

When should you go to the doctor?

Anorexia athletica is a dangerous condition and should always be treated professionally. Although slimness of the body has an advantage in certain sports, the athlete should not risk his health for it. If the low food intake is accompanied by symptoms such as poor concentration, circulatory problems and low blood pressure, the athlete should not hesitate and seek contact with a doctor.

Anorexia athletica is usually accompanied by a nutrient deficiency that has negative effects on the health of the entire organism. Since it is usually not easy to get out of an eating disorder on your own, this difficult path should be accompanied by specialists. Since eating disorders often do not occur as the only illness, but are usually accompanied by other mental disorders, a specialist in psychiatry is the right person to contact. The psychiatrist can get an overall picture of the disorder and initiate further treatment options.

The selection of the right therapy is carried out by the psychotherapist or psychiatrist and always adapts to the personal characteristics of those affected. In addition to psychotherapy, nutritional therapy from nutritional experts is also recommended in order to normalize the eating style and lifestyle in the long term. Since serious forms of anorexia athletica will no longer allow competitive sport in the future, psychotherapy should prepare you for a life without competitive sport.

Treatment & Therapy

Initially, increasing calorie intake, weight gain and compensating for the lack of calcium, vitamin D and protein are key. It is also about improving bone density and bringing the menstrual cycle back into balance in women. In addition to a special diet, psychological counseling and care is common.

The type of psychotherapy depends on the course of the disease and the personal preferences and characteristics of the person concerned. An important part of the treatment is nutritional therapy, which serves to normalize and optimize nutrition and lifestyle over the long term. In severe cases, competitive sport will no longer be possible in the future due to the damage to health.

In this case, one focus of the therapy is to prepare those affected for a life without competitive sports and to support them in realigning their lives. In this regard, care is taken to address and correct the relationship to sport and the relationship to one’s own body as well as the associated self-image.

It is not uncommon for anorexia athletica to be sustained during an athlete’s career, not treated, and persisted after the end of the career. The health hazard remains as self-esteem continues to be nurtured through the ability to self-control and castigate.

Outlook & Forecast

The prognosis for anorexia athletica depends on the progression of the disease and the age of the patient. The sooner diagnosis and treatment are received, the better the chances of a cure. In addition, young patients have better prognosis for recovery. Nevertheless, the chances of a complete recovery from anorexia athletica are generally not very high. About a third of those affected manage to lead a healthy life.

In addition, the chances of recovery depend on the patient’s initial weight at the start of treatment. The lower the weight, the less likely it is to recover. Experience shows that even patients with early treatment often remain with an eating disorder for life.

In many cases, a secondary disease develops as the disease progresses. This is usually the eating disorder bulimia . The patients suffer ravenous hunger attacks and then vomit the ingested food again. Mental illness is also a possible consequence. In addition, there is a risk that anorexia athletica will take a fatal course.

Malnutrition combined with heavy physical strain from sporting activities can lead to a collapse with multiple organ failure. The body gradually dries up and can no longer meet the daily demands. In chronically ill anorexics, the mortality risk increases to over 15% after a decade.


Anorexia athletica was taboo and trivialized for a long time, but gradually people are rethinking it and educational initiatives are being started. In youth sport, the most can be achieved with it. However, all campaigns are of little or no use if the standards in various sports remain unchanged and low weight brings a competitive advantage.

Sanctions at least serve as a deterrent: In ski jumping, the problem of sports anorexia is combated by the fact that a BMI of 21 is currently specified in order to be able to use the full length of the ski (145 percent of body height). Anyone who falls below the value must jump off with shortened skis.


If anorexia athletica is present, the patient absolutely needs follow-up care after initial treatment. It’s about not falling back into old behavior patterns. Anorexia is problematic and difficult to treat anyway.

In anorexia athletica, the motives for the disease are addictive physical activity to achieve an athletic body. Those affected follow false ideals. After the acute treatment, the anorexic must be followed up in order to counteract such distorted body ideals.

In most cases, long-term psychological follow-up care is essential for anorexia athletica. Self-help groups can also be used to correct incorrect body imagery and a disturbed self-image in the long term. If follow-up care falls flat, surrogate acts and other addictions can take the place of anorexia athletica. Worse, the sufferer may revert to old behaviors.

Whenever exercise and disordered eating become addictive, there’s something self-destructive about them. Acute treatment is usually focused on achieving a normal body weight. The task of aftercare is to treat the psychological component.

The patient must learn not to train to the point of collapse, but to respect their limits. He must not confuse striving for success with being well trained. An important aftercare goal is to establish a normal relationship with sport and one’s own body.

You can do that yourself

Since anorexia athletica is about the conscious reduction of body weight in an athlete, the athlete and his trainer should inform themselves intensively and in detail about the natural conditions of the organism. The limits to permanent physical damage caused by eating behavior must be strictly monitored.

Weight reduction is often necessary before competitive situations. Nevertheless, the duration of the intentional change in eating behavior and the increase in training units must be taken into account. After a competition, the behavior must be discarded immediately. In addition, close cooperation and consultation with a sports physician is always recommended for this procedure. Together as a team, the natural needs of the body can be planned and worked out with those of achieving a sporting goal.

In order to avoid a subjective point of view and possible misjudgment and the resulting permanently damaging behavior, you should not act alone. The knowledge of a trained trainer and a doctor is to be taken advantage of.

In addition, the first complications require a doctor’s visit to make adjustments and changes to the eating and exercise plan. If warning signals from the body are overlooked, functional disorders and lifelong organic damage can result. Therefore, a special sensitivity to instructions from one’s own body is necessary, which must be followed immediately.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.