Sports Nutrition: the rise of anorexia and other eating disorders

Anorexia Nervosa - Elite Runners are at high risk of eating disorders

There is a worrying prevalence of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders among Britain’s elite female runners, according to researchers from Leeds University. Of 181 such athletes who returned a confidential questionnaire, 16% had a current eating disorder and a further six had received previous treatment.

The researchers’ aims were twofold: first to examine the prevalence of eating disorders in elite women distance runners in the UK; secondly, to investigate differences in training, dieting, general health and well-being that might be associated with eating disorders.

The 251 athletes originally selected for the study were identified as the best performers in each of the four distance running disciplines - track, road, cross-country and fell/mountain running – during a 12-month period from March 1996 to March 1997.

The prevalence of anorexia nervosa in the sample – 3.8% - was much higher than the 0.28% reported for young women in the general population. And the proportion of runners reporting unspecified eating disorders – 10.9% - was also higher than expected and might well have been and underestimate.

The researchers observed no significant differences in age, height, preferred race distance or training content between the runners with eating disorders and the others. However, those with eating disorders had – not surprisingly – a significantly lower body mass index, lower self-esteem, poorer mental health and more current and past dieting.

Having identified the problem, the researchers believe the next step is to investigate the specific risk and trigger factors for eating disorder associated with distance running. ‘To work effectively in prevention, we must improve our understanding of why and how one in six of our elite women distance runners has an eating disorder requiring treatment,’ they conclude.

Int J Eating Disord 2001 Nov 30(3) 312-7

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