Eating Disorders in Female Athletes Assessed

Eating disorders, female athletes, anorexia, bulemia

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, athletes are one of the most at-risk demographics for developing an eating disorder. As with the general population, female athletes are especially at risk. Researchers from Norway recently generated a brief questionnaire specifically for female athletes to assess whether they had already developed an eating disorder.

The drive to perform often leads professional athletes to adopt behaviors that would seem extreme to a normal person. Waking up for 6:00 a.m. workouts, practicing for hours a day, and adopting strict dietary guidelines are all practices that the public has learned to accept as part of the lifestyle of paid athletes. However when taken to the extreme, sometimes these practices can lead to the development of an eating disorder.

Perhaps the most referenced example of an athlete with an eating disorder is the female dancer. Dancers, along with other athletes in “aesthetic sports” such as gymnastics, diving, and ice skating, are indeed recognized as some of the most at-risk groups. However less well-known are the athletes with eating disorders that come from either weight-class-dependent or leanness dependent sports. Wrestlers and body-builders may be pressured into developing an eating disorder so that they can qualify for a weight category in which they can excel. Rowers and jockeys are also at risk because of the importance of being light, lean, and fast. Finally long-distance runners and swimmers, though less likely to develop anorexia, are particularly at risk for bulimia.

Female athletes are especially at risk. Such athletes are more likely to set unrealistic weight goals that they believe will aid in attaining success in their sport. This may lead to developing an eating disorder that in turn leads to energy deficiency, a halting of normal reproductive function (when the menstrual cycle halts) and low bone mass.  Such conditions may have long-term consequences for an athlete’s health, even if the eating disorder is fixed.

In an effort to shed more light on the issue, researchers endeavored to develop methods to quickly assess potential eating disorders in athletes from a variety of sports. To do this the researchers generated several experimental questionnaires to examine an athlete’s relationship to food. The questions specifically addressed the participant’s perceptions of body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, and dieting habits.

The results of the study produced a questionnaire that will satisfactorily distinguish at-risk athletes. In the next phase of research this questionnaire will be tested in larger samples of female athletes to assess risks across different sports and from different regions. Though there have been other efforts to study the prevalence of eating disorders among athletes, this one offers the advantage of being able to standardize data specific to female athletes that come from a variety of different sports.

Historically assessing the prevalence of eating disorders among athletes has been difficult. Part of the reason for this is that many athletes do not believe that they are at risk or that their behavior constitutes anything besides dedication to their sport. In a study of college athletes it was discovered that athletes in the NCAA were up to three times more likely to develop an eating disorder than their non-athlete counterparts. It is predicted that this risk will be even higher among female athletes who compete at the professional level.

By Sarah Takushi


Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 
Walden Behavioral Care
Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine

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