According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, eating disorders include feelings of fatness, distortions in body image, a desire to be thinner and extreme behaviors to address these feelings and perceptions.
Eating disorders in some sporting venues were well kept secrets for many years. Certain sporting events feature athletes who are more likely to engage in some type of eating disorder. An event such as wrestling where the actual event participants must meet weight requirements is one example.
How prevalent is eating disorders in athletes?
Numerous studies have been conducted on the issue of eating disorders and/or dieting among athletes at the high school and collegiate level. In self-reporting studies, college female athletes reported more symptoms of bulimia and anorexia than the general female population. Johnson, Powers and Dick found over one-third of Division 1 NCAA female athletes had symptoms and overall attitudes which put them at risk for anorexia. Some of the athletes appeared to associate thinness with success in their chosen sport; lower body fat equated with enhanced sport performance.
Studies indicate there is a higher risk for eating disorders in athletes participating in judged sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, or diving than refereed events such as volleyball, basketball, or baseball. Not surprisingly, those athletes in the judged sports are often scrutinized regarding their weight and appearance. It is also no surprise studies have indicated those athletes who are perfectionists also present a higher risk for eating disorders.
Wrestlers have long been known to use extreme dieting methods to maintain their weight category. Wrestlers lose and regain as much as 11-19 pounds in between match events. Methods used include fasting, purging, use of laxatives and diuretics, and dehydration methods such as wearing sweat suits in a sauna. In studies of wrestlers, they report frequent binge eating behaviors and display greater weight concerns than non-weight restricted athletes. In addition, they often report preoccupation with food and negative emotions.
School environments can increase pressures for thinness for both males and females. High school athletes may feel pressure to succeed in order to gain scholarships into college. College athletes may feel increased pressure to maintain fitness and thinness. This increased pressure can lead to dieting extremes.
In Levitt’s study of college athletes, results indicated those in recreational sports were more likely to develop eating disorders than athletes in organized sports. Levitt explains this may be because athletes in organized sports have various resources such as trainers and coaches who provide information and guidance regarding nutrition and health. In addition, college athletes who participate in organized sports are often surrounding by peers who may be more supportive and aware of another’s issues. Students who use recreational facilities indecently and those who do not engage in any athletics may have less direct opportunity for proper guidance. Levitt concludes it is the non-athlete who is the highest risk for developing an eating disorder.
Factors Influencing at Risk Athletes
In examining the available research into the issue of eating disorders among athletes, it is evident there are several factors that could influence the results. Thinness as a measure of beauty exists mostly in Westernized regions and is more prevalent among upper- to middle- class white populations. Findings in the study by Crissey and Honea suggest female athletes who engage in stereotypical feminine sports are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder than those who engage in stereotypical masculine sports
Thompson and Sherman report more than 9% of female athletes in a study conducted by Johnson et al indicated disturbed eating which was severe enough to recommend treatment. In addition, 58% were determined to be at high risk for developing an eating problem. In males the number drops significantly to 1% with eating problems and 38% at high risk for developing one. These differences according to gender are not surprising as in the general population 90% of the reported eating disorders occur in females.
Ethnicity also appears to be a factor in the risk of developing poor eating patterns. Studies have shown white females to be the most prevalent in developing poor eating and dieting habits. In a survey conducted by Thompson and Sherman, no Afro-American female athlete reported the use of pathological weight control methods, while 18.3% white female athletes reported the use of such methods as vomiting or using laxatives to reduce weight. In the same survey less than 23% of the Afro-American female athletes reported ever dieting as compared to 69% of the white female athletes.
Athletes are often in the public eye and not only are their skills and talent scrutinized, but often their appearance is factored into their success or failure as an elite athlete. Sports which emphasize a lean body are more apt to put athletes at risk for developing an eating disorder. In recent years, the light has been shown on this issue and people are much more aware of the problem that exists. With the knowledge of nutrition and resources available to athletes, it is presumed the numbers of athletes engaging in unhealthy eating patterns will decrease. However, the human factor to be successful may override any common sense. Eating disorders in athletes will remain an issue worthy of study.
- American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
- Buchholz, Annick, Mack, Heidi, McVey, Gail, Feder, Stephen, and Barrowman, Nicholas. (2008). Bodysense: An evaluation of a positive body image Intervention on sport climate for female athletes. Eating Disorders 16, 308-321. DOI: 10.1080/10640260802115910
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