Body Image Disorders

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating often begins as a preoccupation with losing and gaining weight or muscle, or an intense fear of becoming fat. It is considered disordered eating when this fear or concern leads to abnormal eating and exercise patterns. These patterns can include bingeing (eating large amounts of food), purging (ridding the body of food), fasting, and/or the use of diet pills, diuretics, laxatives or excessive exercise.

Under the range of disordered eating are body image disorders such as Muscle Dysmorphia (aka: reverse anorexia). At the extreme end of disordered eating are eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa (starvation), bulimia nervosa (bingeing and purging), and binge eating disorder (compulsively eating).

What are Eating Disorders?

Anorexia Nervosa is identified by drastic weight loss from extreme food restriction. An athlete suffering from anorexia may have a strong need for control and have difficulty expressing feelings. Even at dangerously low weights, an athlete may still feel “fat” or have a strong fear of food. Because of this, it can be difficult to encourage them to seek help.

Bulimia Nervosa is identified by frequent changes in weight, with periods of uncontrollable binge eating (eating a large amount of food in a small amount of time) followed by some form of purging (getting rid of) unwanted calories. Purging can occur in the form of vomiting, laxative abuse, excessive exercising, use of diuretics, or fasting. The process of binging and purging may numb hunger, anger, sadness and other feelings, but also creates physical discomfort and anxiety about weight gain. Because most people experiencing bulimia are within a normal weight range, symptoms may go undetected by others for years.

Binge-Eating Disorder (BED) is similar to bulimia in that a binge-eater also experiences periods of uncontrollable eating. In contrast to Bulimia, an athlete with BED does not regularly use weight control behaviours such as vomiting, fasting or over-exercising. Eating binges are often brought on by a need to alleviate difficult feelings, avoid uncomfortable situations or satisfy the severe hunger urges brought on by dieting or other food restriction.

Muscle Dysmorphia is identified by excessive exercise and weightlifting, as well as using steroids and nutritional supplements to gain weight and muscle. An athlete suffering from Muscle Dysmorphia perceives that they are too small, when in fact they are big and muscular. Despite a fit body, they will tend to avoid situations where the body will be exposed, and continuously check themselves in the mirror. This disorder is most common among males.

Important Note: Eating disorders are complicated physical, psychological and behavioural conditions that can be life-threatening for those who suffer from them. Only a trained medical professional or therapist can accurately assess whether an athlete is experiencing an eating disorder and provide the necessary care.

An Athlete who experiences disordered eating is constantly worried about their body weight, shape, physical appearance, and food intake. While it is common for an athlete to be aware of their diet and body shape, an athlete with disordered eating thinks about these things to a point where it gets in the way of happiness and everyday life.

It is important to remember that disordered eating is usually a symptom of something else that is going on in the athlete’s life. When an athlete experiences disordered eating, they may be trying to cope with other issues or pressures in life by controlling body weight and shape.