Risk of Eating Disorders among Female College Athletes and Nonathletes

By Kirk, Ginger; Singh, Kusum et al. | Journal of College Counseling, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Risk of Eating Disorders among Female College Athletes and Nonathletes


Kirk, Ginger, Singh, Kusum, Getz, Hildy, Journal of College Counseling


This study compared the prevalence of eating disorder behaviors between female collegiate athletes (n = 206) and female college nonathletes (n = 197). Although female nonathletes had somewhat higher average scores on the Eating Attitudes Test 26, the proportion at risk for disordered eating was not different in the 2 groups. There was no significant difference among female athletes in different sports. Younger women were found to have more symptoms of disordered eating than did older women.

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In the last decade and a half, considerable research has been published on eating disorders among college students. Much of this research has focused on the risk factors related to and actual incidence of eating disorders among college students, particularly among female students. Public awareness of eating disorders has also increased in recent years. Widespread media coverage of high-profile women athletes and entertainers who have suffered or died from these disorders (Holliman, 1991) has contributed to the general awareness of eating disorders.

Despite growing research interest in the study of eating disorders, however, there remains a great deal of speculation in the mental health profession as to the etiology of eating disorders. Research has linked causes of eating disorders to familial, sociocultural, and biopsychological factors (Cullari, Rohrer, & Bahm, 1998; Graber & Brooks-Gunn, 1996; Noles, Cash, & Winstead, 1985; Sokol, Steinberg, & Zerbe, 1998). The American Psychiatric Association's (APA, 1994) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), has defined the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa as being characterized by severe disturbances in eating behavior that result in medical, psychological, and social problems.

The most frequent commonalties found in individuals with eating disorders include a high drive to achieve, perfectionism, low self-awareness, enmeshed or dysfunctional families-of-origin, and self-worth linked to external validation (e.g., society's reaction to being thin; Black, 1991; Garner & Garfinkel, 1997). Western society's emphasis on youthfulness, thinness, and beauty is thought to contribute to eating disorders (Raphael & Lacey, 1992; Striegel-Moore, Silberstein, & Rodin, 1986). Although multiple variables exist within eating disorder symptomatology, the factors that contribute most to the development of eating disorders in an individual are still unknown.

Many members of the general population and many clinicians are not aware of the severity of eating disorders. It is reported that between 15% and 62% of college women seem to have pathogenic weight control behaviors (Mintz & Betz, 1988). Pathogenic weight control includes various harsh methods of weight loss, including self-induced vomiting; use of laxatives, diuretics, and diet pills; and excessive exercise, all of which are symptoms attributed to eating disorders (Dummer, Rosen, Heusner, Roberts, & Counsilman, 1987). Negative outcomes of eating disorders can also include long-term psychological problems, menstrual dysfunction, electrolyte imbalances, stress fractures to the skeletal system, and premature osteoporosis (Nattiv, 1994; Perry et al., 1996).

The most significant danger of eating disorders, however, is the high mortality rate. It is estimated that 4% to 20% of the women who are diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia will die due to unresolved symptomatology associated with these conditions if full recovery is not achieved (Garner & Garfinkel, 1997). Death resulting from eating disorders constitutes one of the highest fatality rates among the diagnosable mental illnesses listed in the DSM-IV (APA, 1994).

The DSM-IV reports that 90% of the patients who are diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa are women, with 17 to 18 as the mean age of onset. It is estimated that 1% to 3% of the general female population meets the DSM-IV criteria for eating disorders (APA, 1994; Nattiv, 1994).

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