Anorexia Athletica

You may have heard of an eating disorder called anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia nervosa drastically restrict the amount of food they eat. They have a distorted view of their body and an intense fear of weight gain. Over time, this behavior can lead to serious complications. Anorexia athletica is a similar type of disordered eating that’s associated with athletes.

What is anorexia athletica?

Anorexia athletica is a type of disordered eating that impacts athletes. People with anorexia athletica take in a limited number of calories despite a high level of physical activity. This behavior leads to a very lean body type and low weight.

According to a publication by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), people with anorexia athletica have lost at least five percent of their healthy body weight due to calorie restriction and excessive exercise.

Someone with anorexia athletica may not believe that their behaviors are unhealthy. In fact, they may view them as normal in the context of the sport or activity in which they’re participating. Those with anorexia athletica typically meet some, but not all, of the criteria for other eating disorders. Because of this, anorexia athletica is often classified as an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). Athletes with anorexia athletica may be more prone to muscle and bone injuries. Additionally, they can also experience other complications, such as nutritional deficiencies and absent menstrual periods.

Anorexia Athletica Symptoms

Warning signs of anorexia athletica can easily go undetected due to the overvaluation of fitness in our society. Individuals that exercise consistently and/or excessively are often seen as being more disciplined and motivated. Individuals in a disordered person’s life might revere their dedication and unknowingly enable continued or increased exercise anorexia behaviors. If you or someone you know is engaging in the following behaviors, it is important to consider the relationship to exercise:

  • Exercise routinely significantly interfering with daily living activities.
  • Exercise occurring in inappropriate settings.
  • Continuing to exercise despite injury or medical illness.
  • Continuing to exercise despite inclement weather.
  • Feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt, or distress when not able to exercise.
  • Using exercise as permission to eat.
  • Using exercise as compensation for eating.
  • Feelings of low self-esteem.
  • Distorted body image.
  • Hiding exercise.
  • Feeling that exercise exertion is “never enough.”
  • Withdrawal or isolation from support system.

What Causes Anorexia Athletica?

As is the case with other types of eating disorders, there is no singular cause behind anorexia athletica. There are, however, multiple underlying factors that may be associated with the illness: past trauma, surviving abuse, having been bullied, low self-esteem, and having poor relationships with one’s parents could make it more likely for him or her to develop anorexia athletica. Some psychiatric disorders that may be linked to a heightened risk of anorexia athletica include substance abuse, non-suicidal self-injury disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Genetics, too, may provide an underlying trigger that could lead to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia athletica.

Why Are Athletes At Risk?

Although many people are at risk of developing anorexia, athletes are particularly at risk of developing anorexia athletica. This is because athletes are more likely to become obsessed about achieving a perfect body through the regulation of food and intensive workout routines. For an athlete, having a lower body weight gives them an advantage over their opponents, particularly in certain sports such as cycling, acrobatics, and gymnastics. Unlike other eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia, anorexia athletica is primarily about athletic performance.

Athletes are under extra pressure relating to their performance, and some are also subject to aesthetic demands. Some sports which have weight categories also put participants at risk. Rowers, boxers, and wrestlers, for example, may go through cycles of weight loss then weight gain which eventually leads to disordered eating patterns. All too often, athletes also have a heightened awareness of their body, and this puts them more at risk of having body image issues. Also, compulsiveness, expectations of high achievement and perfectionism are all personality traits that are believed to be an advantage for competitive athletes. Unfortunately, all of these traits are also commonly associated with eating disorder development. 

Eating disorders amongst athletes are most commonly seen in females who compete in sports in which a specific bodyweight or leanness is seen as important for appearance or performance, although men suffer too at a lower rate, with around one male athlete to every ten females recognized as suffering from an eating disorder.

Treating Anorexia Athletica

Anorexia athletica is treatable and requires the right mental health, nutrition, and fitness care. Therapy from a mental health professional can treat the symptoms of a range of eating disorders, including anorexia athletica. During therapy, an expert will discuss patterns of thinking, coping, and behavior to determine the root cause of anorexia athletica.

An important part of anorexia athletica treatment is discussing nutrition and how to work out in a healthy way. In treatment, those who are struggling with anorexia athletica can learn how to focus on optimizing their nutrition while avoiding dangerous calorie restricting, and finding a more balanced exercise routine.


In many sports, athletes with low body weight have a distinct advantage over their opponents; however, this advantage can easily turn into a noticeable disadvantage because low body weight may also be associated with health problems. Athletes often restrict calories and/or overexercise to achieve or maintain low body and fat masses. There is a growing body of evidence that several metabolic and endocrine disturbances are the result of prolonged energy restriction. Effective methods of treatment are scarce and similar to treatment of eating disorders. Scientific studies are needed that help establish alternative regulations for sports in which a low body weight is a primary advantage for performance.