What to Know About Anorexia Athletica

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on October 26, 2021
3 min read

Anorexia athletica, or athlete's anorexia,  is a type of eating disorder that affects athletes or people who play a lot of sports. People with anorexia athletica restrict calorie intake and exercise to an extreme level to maintain a lean or thin appearance associated with athleticism.

Anorexia athletica is not a formally recognized eating disorder, so it falls under the banner of 'eating disorder not otherwise specified'.

Anorexia athletica can be difficult to detect because exercise is a normal part of training for many athletes. But symptoms of the disorder may include:

  • Tiredness
  • Low energy levels
  • Irritable behavior
  • Frequent injuries
  • Problems concentrating

People with anorexia athletica often need more recovery time between workouts and may feel guilty, angry, or anxious when they miss a workout session. When told that they're exercising too much, they may react in a defensive way.

The causes of anorexia athletica are unclear. In general, however, people are at greater risk of developing an eating disorder if they have experienced the following things:

  • Criticism for their eating habits or weight
  • Family history of eating disorders, alcoholism, or drug abuse
  • Low self-esteem or perfectionist behaviors
  • Anxiety about being slim or fit
  • Sexual abuse

In general, more females experience anorexia athletica than males, but people of any gender can develop anorexia athletica. Freshman college students are at especially high risk of developing an eating disorder or dissatisfaction with their body shape. 

As with many other eating disorders, people with anorexia athletica may have a distorted sense of body image and a strong fear of gaining weight. This can become even worse if they participate in sports that require regular weigh-ins like boxing, or sports that involve tight uniforms like gymnastics, diving, dancing, and swimming.

Athlete's anorexia risks can be serious if the condition is left untreated. The eating disorder causes a range of long-term health problems, including:

Anorexia athletica often involves a multi-pronged approach, involving a person’s mental health, fitness, and nutrition. 

When you visit your doctor, they'll refer you to a team of professionals who specialize in eating disorders. This team could include:

  • A mental health professional (a psychologist or psychiatrist) will help you recognize and challenge negative thoughts and belief patterns that lead to unhealthy eating habits. You may be asked to keep a food journal so you can identify and keep track of triggers. Therapy can last from anywhere between a few months to a few years.
  • You may also be prescribed antidepressants to supplement your psychological therapy. The medication itself can't cure the eating disorder, but it may help reduce the feelings of anxiety and depression that often come with disordered eating.
  • A dietitian will help educate you about healthy nutrition and meal planning. Nutritional treatment helps you develop a tailored plan to achieve and maintain healthy eating habits. A dietitian will speak with you about how nutrition affects your body, help you plan healthy meals in advance, and encourage you to eat three meals a day with regular snacks.
  • A medical or dental specialist will treat any health conditions that may develop due to anorexia athletica.

Support from your partner, family, and friends is also critical in the recovery process.

Facility-based treatment options for eating disorders like anorexia athletica include hospital day and residential treatment programs.

Hospital day treatment programs are usually repeated several days a week. A typical hospital day treatment may include an individual, group, or family therapy session as well as structured eating sessions and nutritional education.

Residential treatment programs are structured much like day treatments but involve temporarily living at the treatment facility. Hospital day treatments may be recommended for those who need more long-term care, or have been hospitalized because of their eating disorder.

Show Sources


International Journal of Health Sciences: "Association between athletic participation and the risk of eating disorder and body dissatisfaction in college students." 

Mayo Clinic: "Eating disorder treatment: Know your options." 

Multiservice eating disorders association: "Recognizing Anorexia Athletica in Athletes."

Somerset and Wessex Eating Disorders Association: "Anorexia Athletica." 

NHS: "Eating Disorders."

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