New Study Finds Collegiate Female Athletes Do Not Exhibit More Disordered-Eating Symptoms Than Their Non-Athletic Peers

DALLAS, April 5, 2005 – As the number of female college students participating in athletics has increased by more than 500% in the past three decades, sports medicine health care providers, including certified athletic trainers (ATCs), have become more aware of the unique health concerns of female athletes. Such concerns include disordered eating, menstrual disorders and osteoporosis – a group of conditions collectively known as the “female athlete triad.” Together, they are intricately related and combine to influence the health of female athletes. Disordered eating appears to be central to the development of the triad. The causes of disordered eating are complex and involve social, psychological and physiologic factors including social pressures, self-imposed perfectionism, competitiveness, and low self-esteem. The results of previous research regarding the relationship between athletic participation and disordered eating behaviors are conflicting. Some research has found that collegiate female athletes exhibit greater disordered-eating symptoms than their peers who do not participate in sports. In their new study, “Prevalence of Disordered Eating Behaviors in Undergraduate Female Collegiate Athletes and Nonathletes,” published by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association in the spring issue of the Journal of Athletic Training, Mark F. Reinking, PhD, ATC, PT, SCS and Laura E. Alexander, ATC, MPT, CSCS, both based at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., have gathered data that do not support such a theory. “Our research shows that female athletes did not exhibit more disordered eating than women who did not participate in intercollegiate sports,” says Reinking. During the 2002-2003 academic year, Reinking and Alexander conducted their research at Saint Louis University, a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I university. They compared the disordered-eating symptoms of athletes and nonathletes, and, within the athlete population, those who compete in lean and non-lean sports. Lean sports are those in which leanness is emphasized as a competitive or aesthetic advantage, such as swimming, diving, cross country and cheerleading. Non-lean sports include basketball, volleyball, soccer, field hockey and softball. The nonathletes were those females who did not compete on an intercollegiate team and reportedly exercised an average of four or fewer times per week. “According to our results,” says Reinking, “athletes in lean sports showed greater disordered-eating symptoms and were at greater risk for disordered eating than athletes in the non-lean sports and nonathletes.” A total of 146 women participated in the study; 84 were collegiate athletes and 62 were not. The athletes were divided into lean sports (16) and non-lean sports (68). Participants completed questionnaires regarding age, actual weight, desired weight, height, menstrual history and exercise habits. Symptoms associated with disordered eating were assessed using a 91-item self report measure (the Eating Disorders Inventory-2). “As anticipated, based on the emphasis on leanness in our culture, all groups of the female collegiate students studied wished to be thinner than their actual body weight,” says Reinking. “The nonathlete group had a significantly lower desired body weight than the athletes, and the lean-sport athletes had a significantly lower desired and actual body weight than the non-lean sport athletes.” Areas (or subscales) of the Eating Disorders Inventory-2 that were studied included “Body Dissatisfaction,” which measured the dissatisfaction subjects had regarding their body shape and size. The athletes showed significantly lower scores (less dissatisfaction) in this area than the nonathletes. However, the athletes in lean sports had a significantly higher “Body Dissatisfaction” score than the non-lean sport athletes. Another subscale measured was the “Drive for Thinness.” This scale assessed the undue preoccupation with dieting, weight, and weight gain. Reinking and Alexander found that 7.1 percent of the collegiate athletes and 12.9 percent of the nonathletes were at risk for disordered eating, based on this category. Among the athletes, 2.9 percent of the non-lean sport athletes, as compared with 25 percent of the lean-sport athletes, were at risk. “Making sense out of the research on disordered eating in athletes is difficult because study results have been divergent,” says Reinking. “However, two themes are consistent across the research findings on disordered eating. First, the risk is greater among female athletes than in male athletes. Second, the risk is greater in sports that emphasize leanness or body image, particularly in higher levels of competition. “Our study suggests that for women in the non-lean sports, the positive effects of athletic participation outweigh the pressures of competitive collegiate athletics with regard to eating behaviors,” he says. Reinking suggests that the best intervention for disordered eating is a sound preventive program. “Sports medicine providers, including athletic trainers and physicians, see athletes on a frequent basis and must be aware of this problem and be involved in programs that identify these conditions.” He recommends that preparticipation examinations include appropriate screening tools for disordered eating and educational sessions be available to promote healthy eating and training methods. “We must recognize the varied health care needs of female athletes to ensure the safe and healthy participation of women in sports,” he says. To review “Prevalence of Disordered Eating Behaviors in Undergraduate Female Collegiate Athletes and Nonathletes” in its entirety, visit: About the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA): Certified athletic trainers (ATCs) are unique health care providers who specialize in the prevention, assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries and illnesses that occur to athletes and the physically active. The National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) represents and supports 30,000 members of the athletic training profession through education and research. NATA has partnered with numerous health care organizations in recognizing National Public Health Week, April 4 to 10, 2005. This year’s theme is “Empowering Americans to live stronger, longer.” NATA, 2952 Stemmons Freeway, Ste. 200, Dallas, TX 75247, 214.637.6282; 214.637.2206 (fax).

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