Eating disorders are detrimental to all athletes, but are particularly an issue among female athletes. Female athletes are often under pressure to fit the social pressures of the female physique and beauty, while still being a great athlete. Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, can result from these social pressures, or result from the demands of training for some sports, such as martial arts. Eating disorders decrease energy and nutrient intake, which negatively affects health and sports performance.
Low energy and nutrient intake affects female menstruation and skeletal health, along with many other physiological processes. These other processes include: cellular maintenance, growth, repair and thermoregulation. All of which, affect the female athlete’s ability to adapt to training and perform well. Eating disorders also cause iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency is caused by decreased nutrient intake and a loss of iron through menstruation (or other forms of bleeding). Iron, is one of the key nutrients for sports performance, as it is required in order to allow haemoglobin to take the right shape so that it can combine with oxygen and transport it around the body. I.e. the less iron the less oxygen that can be transported and the less the body can use the aerobic energy system. This causes increases in fatigue due to greater reliance on the anaerobic systems (particularly the lactic acid energy system) and, if iron levels are low enough, general lethargy (tiredness).
Other vital nutrients for sports participation include: calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Of these, calcium and magnesium are particularly important for bone density. This is particularly important for female athletes, because females usually have thinner bones than men, and if oestrogen levels drop so does their bone density.
Women’s oestrogen levels usually drop when they hit menopause, but for many female athletes, the increase in muscle mass, and decrease in fat, disrupts their hormonal balance. This is because fat produces oestrogen, while muscle produces testosterone. Female athletes often miss their period, which is a sign of low oestrogen, and can therefore suffer lower bone density.
On the plus side, female athletes often do weight bearing and resistance training, which helps to keep bones stronger. If the female athlete combines an eating disorder with her training however, she may not have the nutrients to build strong bones.
Eating disorders affect the energy and nutrition available to the female athlete. This lack of energy and nutrition affects both the bone health and menstrual cycle of the athlete. Together this can greatly affect sports performance and choices for the female athlete, especially one with an eating disorder.