Eating disorders and disordered eating

An eating disorder (ED) is an illness that causes serious disturbances to the everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating. A person with an eating disorder may have started out just eating smaller or larger amounts of food, but at some point, the urge to eat less or more spiralled out of control. Some symptoms can become life-threatening if a person does not receive treatment. People with anorexia nervosa are 18 times more likely to die early compared with people of similar age in the general population. EDs frequently coexist with other illnesses such as depression, substance abuse, or anxiety disorders.

Energy balance

It is important to consider both a player’s diet (energy input) and training regime (energy output).

Four diagnoses of eating disorders are listed in the DSM-V (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified). However, it is important to recognise that some players may not meet these diagnostic criteria but may not have a healthy relationship with food and weight. These players are described as having “disordered eating” and are at risk of a number of physical and emotional problems.

It has been reported that football players suffer less frequently from eating disorders than athletes from e.g. aesthetic sports and the general population. However, due to their potentially severe consequences, signs and symptoms are listed below to raise the awareness of football physicians. More frequent and closely related to eating disorders is disordered eating, which may lead to relative energy deficiency.

While these disorders are more common in female players, they can (and do) occur in male players too. It is important to have an awareness of this. The effects of relative energy deficiency on male players can be similar to their female peers.

Prof Astrid Junge

Professor of Prevention and Sports