Disorderly eating affects many physique competitors, particularly during the final stage of competition preparation which is masochistically known as ‘cutting’. In their report, Taylor and Francis (2014) reveal that in comparison with non-athletes, ‘athletes are considered three times more likely to develop an eating disorder’.[1] Anorexics and athletes have similar psychological profiles, having many aspects in common. These include perfectionist and depressive tendencies; competitiveness; compulsiveness; and distortions in body image and suffering from a pre-occupation with dieting and weight.

According to one eating disorders’ expert, this is because athletes ‘have the same risk factors as non-athletes but also risk factors in the sport environment.’[2] One of the risk factors involved in competition preparation is the reduction of subcutaneous body fat to dangerously low levels.

When I became a Pro Bikini Athlete in October 2014, my body fat measured 8% on show day. The Bikini division is the ‘softest’ of the female categories, yet competitors are still extremely lean compared to what is considered to be a healthy percentage. Following the industry standard chart based on research by Jackson and Pollock, the ideal body fat for a 30 year old woman is between 20.9% and 24.5%.[3] My studies have found that Bikini competitors who consistently place in the top three of their division measure an average 8.7% at the time of competition.[4] This figure is significantly below the 10-13% that the American Council on Exercise claims to be ‘essential fat’, the fat necessary for physiological health and functioning.[5]

There are several methods of reducing body fat, the most common of which are restricting the intake of calories and carbohydrates. Limiting dietary energy or vital macronutrients, however, increases the competitor’s susceptibility to three inter-related disorders, known as the Female Athlete Triad. The components of the triad are identified by The American Council of Sports Medicine as ‘disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis.’[6]

Amenorrhea and osteoporosis can occur during the cutting process owing to the reduction in daily calorie consumption. This low level of energy intake results in decreased production of essential reproductive hormones, including oestrogen. Lack of oestrogen causes menstrual dysfunction in which the cycle can be either delayed or prevented. Since this hormone also plays a crucial role in calcium resorption and bone accretion, decreased oestrogen levels can also lead to osteoperosis.[7] Hormone production is only restored once body fat increases post competition.

My study focuses upon the third, much more common, aspect of the triad – ‘disordered eating’. This involves abnormal food-related behaviour such as extreme calorie control, binge eating and purging.

Their disorderly patterns of eating mean that competitors often lack sufficient energy availability to support the vigorous training regimes required during preparation. Energy availability is ‘“dietary energy intake minus exercise energy expenditure”’.[8] The recommended daily intake for the average woman is 2000Kcal.[9] When cutting, however, this can drop almost to 1000Kcal. This is the figure established by The United Nations World Health Organization as ‘the border of semi-starvation.’[10]

Such self-starving behaviour has been pathologised by the DSM V as Avoidant / Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. This is defined as ‘significant disturbance in eating or feeding as manifested by persistent failure to meet appropriate nutritional and/or energy needs’.[11] In addition to drastically limiting their calorie consumption, competitors will continue to engage in strenuous weight lifting and high intensity cardiovascular training. Owing to the combination of low energy intake and high energy expenditure, total energy availability becomes dangerously low. According to one competitor, continuing to exercise while lacking sufficient energy to follow her intense training regime was ‘the hardest challenge [she] had ever faced.’

If you are considering entering a competition, or embarking on a strict diet, please remember that cutting out whole food groups is not healthy; severely restricting calories is not healthy; following a food plan instead of listening to your body is not healthy; pursuing a purely aesthetic goal is not healthy.

Health is about balance, and happiness!



[1] Eating disorders and depression in athletes: Does one lead to the other? July 15, 2014, Taylor & Francishttp://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140715085053.htm [accessed 09/01/15]

[2] Ron A. Thompson, author of Eating Disorders in Sport http://www.edcatalogue.com/eating-disorders-sport/ [accessed 20/01/15]

[3] http://www.builtlean.com/2010/08/03/ideal-body-fat-percentage-chart/ [accessed 27/03/15]

[4] Figures are an average taken from 7 Bikini competitors

[5] Exercise AC. Ace Lifestyle & Weight Management Consultant Manual, The Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals. American Council on Exercise; 2009.

[6] http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/89260-overview#a0101%5Baccessed 8/01/15]

[7] http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/89260-overview#aw2aab6b2b3

[8] http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/89260-overview#a0101%5Baccessed 8/01/15]

[9] http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1126.aspx?categoryid=51 [accessed 02/02/15]

[10] Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), p.8 ‘From Too “Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness’, Roberta P. Seid

[11] Screening questions: Has avoiding or restricting food impaired your ability to participate in your usual social activities or made it hard to form or sustain relationships? Can you eat with other people or participate in social activities when food is present? Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013), p.103

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