Female Athlete Triad

Athletes at Risk

Though seen in all sports, those at greatest risk are those:

  • Playing single sport on a year-round basis;
  • Playing endurance sports (long distance running, swimming, cross-country skiing);
  • Engaged in sports demanding a thin physical appearance (gymnastics, ice skating, ballet dancing, diving);
  • Participating in sports with weight classifications (martial arts, rowing, wrestling);
  • Whose parents are perfectionists and put too much pressure on their athletic daughters to succeed no matter what the cost.
Chicken or Egg?

The problem is that the personality of an elite athlete and the personality of one prone to eating disorders have a lot in common: an additive/compulsive personality; a strong desire to do well/achieve perfection; a high desire to please other people, a desire to push oneself to the limit, and to work through pain without letting anyone know. In other words, disordered eating in athletes presents a classic "chicken or egg" question: do sports create eating disorders or do sports attract girls who are already prone to eating disorders in the first place?

Conflicting Cultural/Peer Messages

Girls are also sent conflicting messages by our culture and by their peers: that it is acceptable for them to participate in sports, but they also need to maintain the figure of a super model. The effect of societal pressure to be thin combined with similar pressures in sport may be a higher incidence of disordered eating behaviors and body shaping drug use (tobacco, diet pills, diuretics, laxatives, amphetamines and anabolic steroids) in athletic girls.

Reached Epidemic Levels

The number of athletes affected by eating disorders is staggering:

  • Depending on the survey, eating disorders are thought to affect anywhere from 15 to 62% of girls.
  • Among teens and younger children, disordered eating has reached "epidemic levels," according to researchers at the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
  • A 10-year study revealed that some 7 million U.S. females and 1 million males have eating disorders; that 10 percent reported that disorders began in elementary school, with some children as young as 7 or 8 preoccupied and dissatisfied with body image and weight.
  • Fully forty percent of 9-year-olds in one Harvard study reported dissatisfaction with body shape and as a remedy turned to dieting.
  • A 1996 study reported disordered eating in 100% of elite female gymnasts, and osteoporosis in more than half.