Sports Medicine Research: In the Lab & In the Field: Eating Disorders Persist Over Entire Season (Sports Med Res)
Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Eating Disorders Persist Over Entire Season

Eating Disorders and Weight Control Behaviors Change Over a Collegiate Sport Season

Thompson A, Petrie T, & Anderson C. J Sci Med Sport. 2017; Published online ahead of print http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2017.03.005 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1440244017303341              

Take Home Message: Female athletes with an eating disorder will most likely continue to have the eating disorder throughout their competitive season.

Athletes, especially females in aesthetic sports, are susceptible to an array of eating disorders.  Researchers have assessed the frequency of eating disorders in sports; however, there is limited research that have followed athletes over time to study changes in eating disorder behaviors. Therefore, these authors investigated eating disorder behaviors in collegiate female gymnasts and swimmers over the course of the course of a 5 month competitive season.  A total of 325 athletes provided questionnaire answers at the beginning of their season and then again just before the season concluded.  These questionnaires included the 50 item Questionnaire for Eating Disorder Diagnoses and 6 questions from the Bulimia Test-Revised.  Prior to the season, 20 athletes reported a clinical eating disorder and another 83 were classified with subclinical eating disorder behaviors.  The number of clinical eating disorders increased over the course of the seasons, while the number of subclinical decreased.  Athletes with clinical eating disorders were extremely likely to still have eating disorder behaviors at the end of the season, with 90% still reporting some level of eating disorder as the season was concluding.  Among the athletes with subclinical eating disorder behaviors before the season, 37% continued to have subclinical levels of eating disorders while 11% developed more severe symptoms. This cohort of female athletes commonly reported weight control behaviors such as dieting and excessive exercise that decreased as the season progressed. 

These authors found that female swimmers and gymnasts with eating disorders are likely to still have symptoms at the end of a season.  We need to find appropriate tools for screening and successful intervention.  It would have been interesting to see whether any of these athletes were already diagnosed or currently undergoing counseling for management of these conditions.  These authors reported a relatively high number of subclinical eating disorders who may benefit from educational programming directed at healthy eating behaviors.  Athletes are always looking for ways to “find an edge” and improve their athletic performance.  For some athletes, this includes weight control and excessive exercising.  Most athletes do not realize that excessive exercising can be an unhealthy behavior, which could compromise their performance, and jeopardize their health.  This study investigated female athletes in aesthetic sports – it would be interesting to see if these patterns are consistent in non-aesthetic female sports, as well as male sports with weight control (e.g., wrestling).  Disordered eating has been found to typically last for a few months at a time; however, female athletes with particularly long athletic seasons may be likely to exhibit these behaviors for much longer time frames.  As clinicians, we need to find ways to recognize and help these athletes, because it is evident that they either do not understand that this is harmful or that they cannot help themselves.

Questions for Discussion:  Do you currently use any surveys or screening tools for identification of eating disorders?  What do you think is the best approach to make sure athletes are being honest and seeking help for eating disorders?

Written by: Nicole Cattano
Reviewed by: Jeffrey Driban

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Thompson, A., Petrie, T., & Anderson, C. (2017). Eating disorders and weight control behaviors change over a collegiate sport season Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport DOI: 10.1016/j.jsams.2017.03.005

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