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Steroid Use, Eating Disorders Are Common Among Female Bodybuilders


Nineteen women reported at least one medical problem related to steroid use. Of these, the most serious was kidney failure.

In the study, 55 of 75 women were found to have ED/BT, and 65 of 75 had muscle dysmorphia, meaning that even though they had big muscles, they still regarded themselves as small. In addition, 55 of 75 had "nontraditional gender role," a disorder marked by a preference for typical male clothing, pastimes, jobs, and friends.

Steven Levenkron, author of the just-published book Anatomy of Anorexia and a psychotherapist in private practice in New York, tells WebMD that the "use of high-risk anabolic steroids are perhaps a barometer of how far women will go to achieve the perfect body." The perfect body tends to be viewed as being underweight and overmuscled, he points out.

Steve Crawford, MD, associate director of the Center for Eating Disorders at St. Joseph Medical School in Towson, Md., puts it this way: "Athletes are under pressure regarding their appearance -- especially in sports like bodybuilding, diving, gymnastics, and figure skating."

Pressure to achieve abnormal goals regarding appearance may encourage athletes to engage in self-destructive and unhealthy behavior such as the use of anabolic steroids, Crawford points out.

James Rosen, PhD, a professor of psychology and the director of the Body Image Therapy Program at the University of Vermont in Burlington, urges caution in interpreting the new study findings. "A lot of researchers who study body disorders and eating disorders are unfamiliar with elite competitive athletes," he tells WebMD. "The behavior may look like eating disorders, but the motivation and psychology behind them are very different."

"I don't necessarily think that taking steroids represents a psychological desire to deal with body image," Rosen says. "For most of these women, rigid eating and compulsive behavior are part of the sport of bodybuilding."


Vital Information:

  • A recent study of female bodybuilders showed that one-third reported current or past steroid use, and a large majority of these women were found to have an eating disorder.
  • Eating disorder/bodybuilder type (ED/BT) is marked by high-protein, high-calorie, low-fat diets; eating at regularly scheduled intervals; and a distorted body image.
  • One expert cautions that elite athletes, such as bodybuilders, may show behaviors similar to those with eating disorders, but the psychology driving these behaviors is very different.
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