About 15 percent of major college athletes may have symptoms of eating disorders, study suggests

August 23, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A new survey suggests very few major college athletes suffer from full-blown eating disorders, but slightly more than one in six may exhibit limited symptoms of disordered eating.

Results showed that 83 percent of the athletes reported no signs of an eating disorder. Another 15 percent showed some behaviors associated with an eating disorder - such as binge-eating and purging - but not severe enough to be listed as a disorder.

The results are mostly good news, but they show that even some elite athletes have eating and body image problems that need to be addressed, said Jennifer Carter, sports psychologist at Ohio State University.

Carter helped conduct the survey of 680 student-athletes at Ohio State. She presented the results August 23 in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

"In general, eating disorders among college athletes are no more prevalent - and may be slightly less prevalent - than among college students at large," Carter said.

The survey of Ohio State athletes found that 20 percent of women showed symptoms of eating disorders - compared to rates of 19 to 32 percent found in four other studies of college women in general.

One of the more surprising findings, Carter said, was that 38 percent of the athletes thought that parts of their body were too fat. That included 59 percent of women surveyed and 20 percent of men.

"The fittest people on campus are probably this group of student athletes, but even many of them thought they had too much fat in some areas," Carter said. "You would hope that these very fit people would have a more positive body image. However, many college athletes are perfectionists and that includes perfecting their physique."

Carter made her APA presentation as part of a symposium on college and university efforts to help prevent eating disorders among college athletes. The Ohio State survey was administered by the athletics department to help the university fine-tune its eating disorders policy and help students who might show signs of disordered eating, she said.

Because of the interest in identifying and helping students at risk, the survey was not anonymous, Carter said. As a result, eating disorders may be underreported in this survey.

Students in nearly every intercollegiate sport at the university participated last autumn by completing a questionnaire designed to identify behaviors associated with eating disorders, Carter said. Ohio State has 34 varsity sports teams, 17 each for men and women.

Participants included 53 percent males and 47 percent females. Women athletes tended to show more behaviors associated with eating disorders than did men. For example, 14.2 percent of women reported they dieted strictly to maintain or lose weight, compared to 5.8 percent of men. Women were also slightly more likely to report binge eating, fasting, or use of appetite control pills.

The average weight reported by female athletes was 142.76 pounds; the average weight for men was 191.56 pounds. Women on average wanted to lose 7 pounds, while men, on average wanted to gain 2 pounds.

"Male athletes tend to have different eating problems than do women," Carter said. "Sometimes they have what is referred to as reverse anorexia - they are these big, muscular guys who see themselves as too small and puny."

As part of the university's eating disorders policy, athletes completing the survey who showed serious symptoms of eating disorders were directed to meet with a sports psychologist, Carter said.

"We're trying to prevent eating disorders by identifying those at risk early enough to help them," Carter said. "We're also educating coaches, trainers and others about how to identify athletes who may have symptoms of eating disorders."

Carter said the university hopes to continue administering the eating disorders survey to determine how effective the policy works in preventing problems among athletes.

"Overall, I believe student athletes have good mental health in comparison to the general student population," Carter said. "However, disordered eating is a problem with some athletes and we need to be alert to identifying these problems early."
Contact: Jennifer Carter, (614) 293-2432;

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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