Some sports linked to unhealthy eating behaviors in girls

July 30, 2002

Girls involved in sports that emphasize staying at a certain weight are more likely than their peers to practice unhealthy eating behaviors to achieve their desired weight, a new large-scale study confirms.

The research also reveals risk factors that can be used to identify girls engaged in weight-dependent sports, like gymnastics and ballet, who are particularly vulnerable to eating behaviors considered "disordered." These risk factors include depression, a history of sexual abuse, or abuse of cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana.

The investigators placed a girl in the "disordered eating behavior" category if she reported attempting to lose weight or prevent weight gain during the previous week by forcing herself to vomit, using diet pills, or taking laxatives or diuretics. The researchers did not use survey data for less-extreme behaviors, such as eating less to lose or keep from gaining weight, as these self-described actions do not necessarily indicate disordered eating.

"Although weight-related sports involvement has been associated [in previous studies] with elevated risk for eating disorders, not all youth involved in [these sports] display symptoms," notes lead author Nancy E. Sherwood, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

The findings appear in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

To better characterize the young women at greatest risk, Sherwood and her colleagues analyzed selected data from a 1995-1996 survey of adolescent health in Connecticut. The sub-sample included 5,174 female public school students in the seventh, ninth, and 11th grades.

Like previous researchers who studied smaller groups, Sherwood reports, the investigators found that participation in a weight-related sport was a risk factor for disordered eating behaviors. A girl who participated in such sports, they observed, was 1.5 times more likely than a non-participant to engage in these behaviors.

Yet despite the elevated risk among the girls involved in weight-related sports, the responses of the vast majority (91 percent) provided no clear evidence of disordered eating.

By comparing various survey responses from the girls who did and did not report disordered eating behaviors, the investigators were able to identify risk factors beyond mere participation in a weight-related sport. Of note, underweight was not on the list, suggesting that low body weight for height is not a reliable indicator of disordered eating in this population.

"Coaches and other education and health professionals should be aware that girls with [the] additional risk factors may be more likely to exhibit disordered eating" and monitor athletes for symptoms, the researchers conclude. At the same time, they recommend, "coaches should pay attention to messages they send regarding weight-related issues, ensuring that they emphasize healthy approaches to eating and exercise."
Funding for the Voice of Connecticut Youth Survey was provided by the State of Connecticut Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Funds for data analysis were provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Center.

Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Amy Phenix at (612) 625-8510 or
American Journal of Health Promotion: Call (248) 682-0707 or visit

Center for Advancing Health

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