July 31, 2002 -- Although participating in sports is usually a self-esteem booster for girls, being involved in some weight-conscious sports might put young women at risk for eating disorders. But new research shows there are some warning signs that parents and coaches can look out for.
The study showed that participating in a sport or activity that puts pressure on athletes to maintain a specified body shape or weight, such as gymnastics and ballet, is a risk factor for developing eating habits that are considered "disordered." Those behaviors include attempting to lose weight or prevent weight gain by forced vomiting, using diet pills, or taking laxatives or diuretics, and could eventually lead to serious eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
Researchers found that girls who participated in such sports were one and a half times more likely to engage in those risky behaviors than were other girls.
But despite this increased risk, researchers say the vast majority of girls involved in weight-related sports (91%) show no signs of disordered eating. That finding prompted the study authors to look for other potential factors that might help identify who's most at risk.
Among those who participated in weight-dependent sports, girls who had these disordered eating habits were more likely to report substance use, symptoms of depression, and poor communication with their parents.
"Coaches and other education and health professionals should be aware that girls with additional risk factors may be more likely to exhibit disordered eating," writes researcher Nancy E. Sherwood, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.
Interestingly, researchers say being underweight or having a low body weight for height was not a reliable predictor of disordered eating among the girls studied.
Because girls who participate in weight-conscious sports face a higher risk of developing disordered eating habits, the study authors recommend that coaches monitor their athletes for these behaviors and receive training in strategies for handling these issues appropriately with girls and their parents.
"Moreover, coaches should monitor their own behavior toward athletes and pay careful attention to messages they send regarding weight-related issues, emphasizing the importance of healthy eating as opposed to the maintenance of arbitrary weight standards for optimal performance," write the authors.
Their study appears in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion. The findings were based on data collected from a 1995-96 survey of more than 5,000 seventh, ninth, and 11th graders enrolled in Connecticut public schools.