The Study That Shows Elite Athletes Are More Likely To Develop Eating Disorders

The Study That Shows Elite Athletes Are More Likely To Develop Eating Disorders

Sport can add positivity to people’s lives in many ways, but there is a shadow in the form of eating disorders which has plagued generations of sportsmen and women. As a society we are becoming increasingly open about the problem, in part thanks to figures like Andrew Flintoff and Colin Jackson coming out and speaking about their troubled relationships with food.

There is now no hiding from the fact that those who compete at a high level of sport are more at risk of developing an eating disorder than the general population - a fact we’ve been aware of for over 16 years.

A huge study back in 2004 examined all 1,620 of Norway’s elite athletes and found that 13.5 per cent of them had an eating disorder in comparison to 4.6 per cent of a control group. That’s almost three times as high.

The researchers recommended that coaches, parents, physicians and athletes needed to collaborate in order to recognize and prevent these debilitating diseases because at their worst they can be life-altering.

Unfortunately, the human stories behind those statistics, like that of Rebecca Quinlan who dreamed of becoming a professional runner when growing up, bear that out.

"I think there is a general culture, particularly in track and field athletics you know… weight loss is good, weight loss will enhance your performance," Rebecca told the BBC.

Her troubles with restrictive eating really escalated when she started studying sports science at university. "As part of my course I had swimming lessons every week, so I had lost a lot of weight and it would have been visible to the swimming teacher seeing me in a swimming costume every single week, that I'd gone from virtually a normal weight to severely underweight but nothing was ever said," Rebecca explained.

Eventually, she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. "The doctor sat me down and she was like, 'Rebecca, you are dying… You will die if you don't get help immediately.' She said that my kidneys, liver and my heart were failing.

"I have osteoporosis now, which is incurable, I still don't have a period even though I've regained the weight.

"It started out so innocently just trying to lose weight for me to achieve my dream of becoming a professional athlete… I feel sad now to think that my dream got taken over by the eating disorder."