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Eating Disorders and Sports: Is there a relationship?

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Victor Torres tells you, sports nutritionist at INDYA.

Normally we associate certain EDs with people who practice some type of sport, however practicing sports provides us with countless benefits on a physical and mental level.

The appearance of eating disorders is more common than in those sports where body weight is of special importance.. For example, weight category sports, sports where aesthetics and physique are involved, and endurance sports where athletes associate less fat with more performance.

Disordered eating is presented as one of the possible risk factors that could contribute to the development of an eating disorder. At a sporting level, what nutritionists seek is to be able to provide optimal nutrition to get the athlete's maximum performance, which is why it is important to educate at the sports level. nutritional information to athletes so that they understand how important nutrition is and prevent this type of disorders, taking into account the complexity of the factors involved.

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What is known as an eating disorder?

An eating disorder refers to a serious mental health condition that affects a person's relationship with food. These disorders can manifest in various ways, such as extreme restriction of intake of foods, recurrent episodes of excessive eating, or selective and avoidant. In essence, eating disorders They not only involve the amount of food consumed, but also the attitudes and thoughts associated with food, body weight, and body image..

EDs are present in a considerable way in the world population but when we talk about the athlete population the percentage skyrockets. Especially in female athletes and young adolescents.

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What types of TCAs are known?

The most common EDs are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified.

anorexia nervosa It is characterized by consuming less energy than necessary in addition to having a distorted perception of your body, seeing yourself as much above your real weight. This causes serious malnutrition problems and can even cause death from starvation.

bulimia nervosa It consists of periods of excessive binge eating followed by vomiting or other ways to compensate for these binges (laxatives, intense exercise...). It does not have to be related to being underweight or overweight. It can cause problems both physically and mentally.

Binge eating disorder It consists of episodes of uncontrolled binge eating without compensation as in bulimia. This causes excessive calorie intake and is associated with overweight and obesity.

Eating disorder not otherwise specified is classified when the criteria to meet the above eating disorders are not met.

Which TCAs are most related to sports?

EDs have a higher prevalence in the athlete population than in the general population, however, the disorders that involve losing weight such as anorexia and bulimia, in certain cases, makes them more related to the sports.

The prevalence of EDs in sports is higher in female athletes than in men and more so in growth stages such as adolescence. due to the importance of aesthetics during that time. Even so, there are also male athletes who suffer from eating disorders.

The sports most prone to suffering from EDs can be grouped into the following groups:

  • Sports where low weight can be a competitive advantage and aesthetics are also important, such as classical ballet and gymnastics.
  • Endurance sports where low weight can improve performance such as cycling or running.
  • Sports where athletes have weight categories such as boxing, weightlifting, taekwondo, etc.

Suffering from an eating disorder when playing sports is strongly associated with sports-related energy deficiency syndrome. (RED-S for its acronym in English). This can cause (in addition to all the problems related to the TCA itself) a prolonged energy deficit over time that will cause decreases muscle mass, it will favor the appearance of injuries, osteoporosis, menstrual problems and a host of imbalances at the level hormonal.

How can a nutritionist guide the strategy of an athlete with an eating disorder?

It is important that it is clear that eating disorders must be treated in an interdisciplinary manner between a doctor and a psychologist. From the nutritional side we can also help and do our bit.

This 3-part work will make evolution a success. From the psychologist's side, it will be important to address the relationship you have with food and how you feel when you perform the behaviors. On the part of the doctor, it will be appropriate to determine how the athlete is doing at a health level by interpreting tests, health biomarkers, if there is possible malnutrition, etc.

Regarding the nutritional part, the most important thing will be to provide each athlete with the energy necessary for sports practice, making the athlete understand how important it is for the performance. Once this is clear, we can adapt their nutrition by knowing their eating habits. If it is necessary to eat more or fewer meals, if it is necessary to provide more energy for certain workouts, if it is appropriate to add some supplies during training...

Can you continue doing sports?

It must be emphasized that Eating disorder has to be diagnosed by a doctor and psychologist. Therefore, as nutritionists we cannot know if it is safe to continue doing sports. If the medical side gives the go-ahead and the psychologist believes that it is a good time to introduce sports, we could continue.

A compensation practice for having overeated in athletes with ED is usually to perform intense physical exercise, in these cases it would not be appropriate.

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