Mom: I wish you’d eat more dinner.
Daughter: I ate plenty. Besides, fat runners lose races.
Mom: You’re hardly fat. And don’t athletes need calories for energy?
Daughter: The leaner I am, the better time I’ll make. Just watch!
Participating in sports certainly gives your daughter exercise and confidence and teaches her about teamwork. However, athletic involvement is no panacea. No matter how active your daughter is, no matter how seriously involved in her sport, she could still be worried about her weight and could still be dieting. And that may put her at risk for an eating disorder.
In fact, if she’s an athlete in certain sports, such as gymnastics or track, she is more likely than the average girl to have an eating disorder. Eating disorders (ED) are on the rise among female athletes, says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. “An alarming number of female athletes and their coaches have bought into the notion that ‘thin wins.’”
Just how significant is the problem of eating disorders among female athletes? Try this out for size: Thirteen percent of female athletes suffer from eating disorders versus just 3 percent of the general female population. That’s what eating disorder specialist Dr. Craig Johnson (with Laureate Psychiatric Clinic in Tulsa, Oklahoma) and his colleagues found in a recent study of female athletes at 11 NCAA Division I schools. And even that alarmingly high rate is what Johnson calls a “a conservative estimate.”
Despite a large sample and rigorous methodology, the study was slightly flawed because the NCAA banned follow-up calls by the researchers. All of which has left Johnson and his colleagues believing that eating disorder rates among college female athletes might be higher than their study showed.
An additional 16 percent of respondents reported a drive for thinness comparable to eating disorder patients, he says. And 19 percent reported a level of body dissatisfaction comparable to ED patients, Johnson says.
Certain sports riskier
Unsurprisingly, sports are not created equal when it comes to eating disorder risk. The highest risk sports are ones based on judging—gymnastics, ice skating, and diving, or endurance—track/cross-country and swimming.
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