Anorexia athletica is a subtype of anorexia that causes excessive exercise and dieting in the context of a sport. It is particularly prevalent in elite and weight-conscious sports such as gymnastics and ballet.

Anorexia athletica commonly co-occurs with the female athlete triad, a cluster of weight loss-related symptoms that can affect both health and athletic performance. The more comprehensive term “relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S)” has since replaced this triad.

People with the condition may stop menstruating, lose bone mineral density, and experience low energy availability. As with other forms of anorexia, it can cause serious and life threatening health consequences.

Read on to learn more about anorexia athletica.

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Anorexia athletica is a type of excessive or compulsive exercise to lose weight. It may occur alongside anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that causes a person to dramatically restrict their food intake.

People with anorexia athletica have a relative energy deficiency.

RED-S means that even though a person’s energy requirements increase because of their sport, they do not eat more. This can lead to low energy, muscle loss, bone loss, and amenorrhea — the loss of menstrual periods.

The condition can be difficult to detect.

For example, a person might appear to be eating a fairly typical amount, but it is not enough to compensate for the calories burned during exercise. They may also be exercising excessively to lose weight.

Anorexia athletica is a subtype of anorexia nervosa, not a distinct diagnosis. The symptoms are very similar, with the primary difference being that anorexia athletica is usually associated with exercise and sports.

Some symptoms include:

  • Relative energy deficiency: This might mean a person eats a seemingly typical amount but exercises excessively and does not increase their caloric intake appropriately.
  • A fixation on becoming or remaining thin: A person may perceive themselves as “fat” or “overweight.” They might think their body does not live up to their perceived image requirements of a sport.
  • Exercising more than is necessary or healthy: A person may exercise more frequently than other peers in their sport or use their sport as an excuse to exercise excessively.
  • Physiological changes: A person may stop having a period, lose weight, or experience low energy. In addition to losing fat and muscle, they may also lose bone mass, increasing their risk of fractures.

The main distinction between anorexia nervosa and anorexia athletica is that anorexia athletica occurs in the context of a sport. It often includes excessive exercise.

Some important distinctions include:

  • A person with anorexia may eat nothing or very little. While this is also possible in the context of anorexia athletica, anorexia athletica often involves a relative energy deficiency. This means that a person eats less than is necessary for their level of physical activity, though not necessarily less than a nonathlete.
  • People with anorexia athletica participate in sports. They often engage in sports with a focus on a leaner body, such as climbing, ballet, gymnastics, or running. A person with anorexia nervosa may be an athlete, but the sport is not typically the reason for the eating disorder.
  • Anorexia athletica usually involves excessive exercise, not just dieting.

In some sports, such as gymnastics and figure skating, coaches and officials inform participants that a low body weight confers an advantage. Others, such as ballet, place a significant emphasis on the appearance of a person’s body.

These sports are significant risk factors for anorexia athletic. Some examples include:

  • ballet
  • dance
  • figure skating
  • rock climbing
  • cycling
  • distance running
  • gymnastics
  • bodybuilding

The other risk factors are similar to anorexia nervosa and include:

  • being female
  • childhood obesity
  • a history of abuse
  • perfectionism
  • impulsivity
  • a history of depression or other mood disorders

Anorexia athletica deprives the body of the nutrients it needs to thrive. Therefore, it can affect almost every aspect of well-being. Some health risks and complications include:

Treatment for anorexia athletica has two components: managing the underlying mental health issues that lead to the symptoms and treating the physical complications.

A person may need nutritional support as well as ongoing medical care. As people may experience a range of complications, some need intensive inpatient care.

A person will likely need counseling or therapy. They might also require medication for depression, anxiety, and other symptoms.

In most cases, working with a dietitian to regain weight safely is beneficial.

People with anorexia athletica may need ongoing help and guidance. Some people find support groups especially helpful.

Many mental health clinics offer support groups. A person can also find support from the following organizations:

People with anorexia athletica do not always want symptoms to go away. A distorted body image may make it difficult to identify the issue and prevent them from getting help.

If a parent, caregiver, or loved one notices a person exhibiting symptoms of an eating disorder, they should endeavor to assist them in getting medical attention.

Anorexia athletica is a serious medical condition that can affect a person’s health and sports performance. It may cause significant weight loss and weakness.

People with anorexia athletica may feel a sense of denial about their symptoms or be reluctant to seek treatment because of fears it will cause weight gain.

Without treatment, they may continue to lose weight and experience health complications. It is important for loved ones to offer support and intervention to encourage treatment.