Public Release: 

UF Researcher: Athletes Likely To Have Symptoms Of Eating Disorders

University of Florida

GAINESVILLE --- Athletes are more likely than nonathletes to report symptoms of eating disorders, even though participation in sports can help young people have better self-images, a University of Florida researcher has found.

Performance and social pressures from coaches, judges and teammates may increase athletes' vulnerability to eating disorder symptoms, said Heather Hausenblas, an assistant professor in UF's department of exercise and sport sciences.

Hausenblas' study, which will be published in September's Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, was a statistical review of 92 separate studies that included 10,878 athletes. Hausenblas did the study with Albert Carron from The University of Western Ontario.

In a previous study, published in December's Journal of Sport Behavior, Hausenblas concluded that participants in athletic activities have better body images, higher levels of self-esteem and more interpersonal trust than non-athletes. Hausenblas said these qualities don't necessarily prevent eating disorder symptoms, because the drive for thinness often can be strongly motivated by other external factors and pressures.

Participants in aesthetic sports, such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating, may be more prone to eating disorder symptoms than other athletes, because they are subjectively evaluated by judges, so their physical appearance may play a large part in their success, Hausenblas said.

"They may be scoring higher on eating disorder indice tests [which test for eating disorder warning signs] because of performance and social pressures in their environment, like trying to maintain a lean body for optimal performance," she said. "These factors may, in a sense, raise more awareness to the athletes, and they may be more conscious of what they eat and how they look."

The most common symptom, Hausenblas said, is the "drive for thinness," which is marked by extreme dieting, fasting and a preoccupation with losing weight. Other common symptom are binging and purging techniques such as taking laxatives, diuretics and diet pills and engaging in excessive exercise.

Hausenblas said some of the traits of eating disorders stem from qualities that also drive people to succeed in sports competition, such as perfectionism, compulsiveness, self-motivation and high achievement expectations.

"This is a very prevalent problem in athletics," said Marie Chafe, the executive director of the Altamonte Springs-based International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals. "In fact, it has grown to such an extent that several universities are now implementing programs for their student-athletes to deal with eating disorders."

Body dissatisfaction among women has increased over the last few decades, which has led to a growing number of women with eating disorders. In fact, some studies have shown that about a third of women between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer from some degree of disordered eating, Chafe said. Societal pressure to conform to the current "ideal" body shape has led many women to change their self-perceptions.

"Society's ideal fluctuates," Hausenblas said. "In the 1960s, it was a thin shape. Today, it is a thin and fit shape. To achieve the ideal, many men and women try to lose weight and tone up and they begin to diet, which is the No. 1 precursor to an eating disorder."

For the most part, she said, sport participation has many physical and psychological benefits. However, in general, athletes are reporting more eating disorder symptoms than nonathletes, particularly athletes in aesthetic sports.

Further research is needed to determine if athletes are more at-risk than nonathletes for actual eating disorders, Hausenblas said, adding that education of coaches and judges is the first step in awareness and prevention of eating disorder symptoms.

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