Written by Isabella Pallotto ’19
Do eating disorders disappear when college athletes are in-season? It is well established that eating disorders are present in collegiate student-athletes but not how (or if) eating disorder symptoms change throughout the collegiate sport season. The collegiate sport season is defined as the amount of time (typically demarcated by a season of the year) that a student participates in varsity athletic competitions, representing their university in a specific sport. Being “in season” may improve some athletes’ eating disorder symptoms because they are required to eat meals with the team and the need to be fit, not just thin, in order to perform well in an athletic competition. However, for other athletes, being in season may worsen eating disorder symptoms. A worsening of symptoms is thought to mainly occur in athletes whose weight plays a role in competition. For example, wrestlers must restrict their weight in season in order to compete in a specific weight class, and divers must be thin in order to score well on aesthetic rankings.
Athletes may experience eating disorder symptoms at different levels of severity. The most severe symptom expression is seen in athletes who are diagnosed with an eating disorder by a medical professional. Moderately less severe symptom expressions are seen in athletes who demonstrate symptoms of an eating disorder, like excessive exercise, vomiting, or use of laxatives, but do not qualify for a diagnosis. Researchers, Thompson, Petrie, and Anderson, from the University of North Texas conducted a study that asked how do eating disorders change across an athletic season? Will eating disorder symptoms worsen, improve, or remain the same?
Thompson et al. (2017) studied 219 female collegiate gymnasts and 106 female collegiate swimmers from 26 different colleges in the United States. Gymnasts and swimmers were specifically selected because eating disorders are fairly common among athletes in these two sports. The participating athletes were studied at the beginning of their athletic season and right before the end of their athletic season. Findings showed that eating disorder symptoms worsened over the season in gymnasts and swimmers. More women were diagnosed with an eating disorder at the end of the season than at the beginning of the season, and women who started the season with an eating disorder did not improve by the end of the season. About half of the women who began the season with eating disorder symptoms improved by the end of the season but the other half’s eating disorder symptoms either stayed the same or worsened to merit a diagnosis. However, the majority of participants started and finished the season with no eating disorder symptoms.
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Martinsen, M. & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2013). Higher prevalence of eating disorders among adolescent elite athletes than controls. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 1188-1197.
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, 20, 808-813.