What Increases the Risk of Eating Disorders in Male Athletes?

Participants in weight-class sports had the highest rate of eating disorders.

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
March/April Volume 25, Number 2
©2014 iaedp

As the athletes at the recent Sochi Olympic Games have so clearly shown, competing in elite games takes years of training and dedication. For some elite athletes, disordered eating behavior helps lose and then maintain lower weights. Sports that favor a low percentage of fat or low body weight have been associated with for development of an eating disorder. A recent Brazilian study turned the spotlight on disordered eating behaviors in male athletes (Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria. 2013; 35:237).

According to Dr. Fernanda Reistenbach Goltz and colleagues, men have been “largely overlooked” in research because of eating disorders are less commonly reported among men. However, the misconception that men cannot have eating disorders has significantly changed, so that the ratio of men to women with eating disorders can reach 1:4 in the general population and 1:2 among athletes. And, the authors note that certain characteristics such as determination, perfectionism, obsession, and competitiveness enable athletes to compete and to succeed, but also confer eating disorder risk.

To learn more about disordered eating among male athletes, Dr. Reistenach Goltz and colleagues studied 156 male athletes in three groups: 52 who competed in weight-class sports (judo, karate, rowing); 52 in sports emphasizing leanness (swimming, triathlon, horse racing); and 52 in “sports with aesthetic ideals” (ballet, dance, artistic gymnastics, skating). Body fat was assessed and the men completed three questionnaires, the Eating Attitudes Test (EAT-26), the Bulimic Investigatory Test, Edinburgh (BITE), and the Body Shape Questionnaire (BSQ).

More than a fourth had disordered eating behaviors

Forty-three athletes (27.6%) reported disordered eating behaviors. The prevalence was 30.8% among those participating in weight-class sports, 26.9% in those competing in leaness sports and 25% in those who competed in “sports with aesthetic ideals.” Twenty-three athletes (14.7%) had elevated body image dissatisfaction scores; though scores were higher than normal; the percentage was lower than has been reported in other studies. Others authors, such as Sundgot-Borgen and Torstveit (Clin J Sport Med. 2004; 14:25) have reported that athletes participating in weight class sports had the highest prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors.

Athletes with a higher percentage of body fat were more likely to be dissatisfied with their body image, but there was no difference in eating behavior and body image between athletes from different sports categories.

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