Risk Factors for Disordered Eating in Female University Athletes

By Berry, Tanya R.; Howe, Bruce L. | Journal of Sport Behavior, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Risk Factors for Disordered Eating in Female University Athletes


Berry, Tanya R., Howe, Bruce L., Journal of Sport Behavior


There has been concern expressed that participation in sport may encourage the onset of disordered eating which, in turn, may lead to a clinical eating disorder. This study examined social pressure, self-esteem, body image, and competition anxiety as risk factors for disordered eating in female university level athletes from selected sports. In addition, the relationships of body fat percentage and body mass index to indicators of disordered eating were studied. Canonical correlations showed significant relationships between restrained eating and all the risk factors as well as a significant relationship between high body mass index and restrained eating. Individual regression analysis showed that restrained eating was significantly predicted by body image and social pressure. Emotional eating was significantly predicted by body image. There were no significant differences apparent in the symptoms for eating disorders among the various sport teams. It was concluded that psychological predisposing factors to e ating disorders do occur in athletes but more research is needed to identify the extent of the interrelationship between the variables. It was shown that all athletes, regardless of sport, could be considered at risk if the predisposing factors identified in this research are present. Finally, it is recommended that more research be undertaken to examine the role of coaches and peers in the development of disordered eating.

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN) are often characterised as diseases of young, middle class, white women (Thompson & Sherman, 1993). The American Psychological Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition (DSM-IV), has outlined strict, clinical, diagnostic criteria for these eating disorders. However it has been recognized, that within identifiable population groups, some individuals may exhibit disordered eating and distorted body image that do not necessarily meet the DSMIV criteria for a clinical diagnosis (Beals & Manore, 1994). It has been further hypothesized that these sub clinical syndromes may be more common than the full clinical syndromes themselves (Shaw & Garfinkel, 1990). Athletes have been identified as one of the groups that display high levels of disordered eating, although this finding has not been consistent, as in one study at least, it has been found that they may be at a lower risk than members of the general population (Wil kins, Boland, & Albinson, 1991). In contrast, it has also been claimed that eating disorders may be more pervasive than expected, particularly in specific sports (Beals & Manore, 1994).

It has been reported that sports with an emphasis on aesthetics, sports that emphasize a lean body build, and sports with weight classes have higher incidences of participants with eating disorder symptoms. Researchers investigating high-performance athletes across Canada found that female athletes participating in weight-matched sports (lightweight rowing and judo) and athletes in sports that emphasize leanness (gymnastics and diving) had significantly higher scores on an eating disorder inventory than athletes in nonweight-restricted sports (volleyball and heavyweight rowing) (Stoutjesdyk & Jevne, 1993). One researcher, using elite Norwegian female athletes as subjects, found that the sports with the greatest number of athletes using pathogenic weight control methods were those that were considered aesthetic, were weight dependent, or required endurance (Sundgot-Borgen, 1993). Similarly, Sundgot-Borgen (1994) found that the prevalence of eating disorders among elite female Norwegian athletes was significan tly higher in aesthetic and weight dependent sports than in other sport populations. Taub and Blinde (1992) compared adolescent female athletes with nonathletes on behavioral and psychological traits associated with eating disorders as well as the use of pathogenic weight loss techniques such as vomiting and diet aids. …

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