All sports need to be concerned about eating disorders – warns Loughborough academic

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A Loughborough academic has warned coaches that athletes in power sports, such as basketball, football and rugby, can also experience eating disorders.

That is one of the major findings from a collection of research papers that the University’s Dr Anthony Papathomas has included in a special edition of the international journal, ‘Psychology of Sport and Exercise’, available now.

As lead guest editor, Dr Papathomas invited experts from around the world to contribute articles on eating disorders in sport in a bid to ‘improve understanding’ of the problem and to inspire researchers to ask more ‘challenging questions’ about it.

 “It’s the first ever collection of original academic research on eating disorders in sport,” said Dr Papathomas, of the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences.

“Eating disorders in sport are a big issue and the time was right to gather current expert perspectives in one place.

“Many of the studies challenge how we traditionally view athletes with eating disorders. For example, my co-guest editor, Professor Trent Petrie, from the University of North Texas, looked at why male athletes have bulimia.”

Dr Papathomas also contributed an article that highlighted self-starving practices within basketball.

He said: “The stereotypical case is a female athlete in a sport like gymnastics or distance running.  My research has found that it’s broader than that and there are examples of individuals in sports where you might not think an eating disorder would be a problem – power sports like basketball, football, and tennis.

“There can be complacency in these sports, where people might say ‘we are okay, we don’t need to be concerned’. All sports need to be concerned.”

Dr Papathomas says it is virtually impossible to find out how prevalent the problem is in these sports because of the stigma.

“People don’t come forward and admit to it because they fear the stigma. If you’re a successful athlete, put on a pedestal as ‘mentally tough’, it can be hard to say ‘hey I have a problem here’”, he added.

“Men are particularly troubled by this – they don’t want to be associated with what society tells us is a female disease. So they hide it and don’t get help.”

The special issue also includes articles that address coaches’ views on eating disorders and research on intervention strategies to prevent eating disorders occurring in the first place.

Dr Papathomas said: “For eating disorders in sport, it's a moment of international significance. We expect to see our understanding increase dramatically over the next 10 years and these articles point the way forward for that.”

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