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date: 24 March 2019

Summary and Keywords

Although the specific prevalence rates may vary, eating disorders (ED) affect male and female athletes regardless of sport type and competitive level. Generally, rates of subclinical disorders are much higher than clinical ones, with the most frequent clinical classification being Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified. Further, EDs occur not only among active athletes, but are also found in samples of retired athletes as well. Existing research on the prevalence of EDs in athletes, however, has been limited due to its reliance on out-of-date diagnostic criteria, sometimes small samples, and a focus on point prevalence to the exclusion of examining how rates might change over time. Central to prevalence research and clinical assessments is the ability to accurately assess EDs in athletes. Although structured clinical interviews represent the most valid approach, they are time consuming and not often used in determining prevalence. Researchers have relied on self-report measures instead. Such measures include those developed initially in nonathletes, but used to study athletes (e.g., Questionnaire for Eating Disorder Diagnosis; Mintz, O’Halloran, Mulholland, & Schneider, 1997), and those specifically for athletes (e.g., Athletic Milieu Direct Questionnaire; Nagel, Black, Leverenz, & Coster, 2000). Most of these measures, though having adequate psychometric properties, are based on diagnostic criteria that are no longer in use, so additional research that employs prevalence measures that reflect DSM-5 criteria is needed with athletes. Most ED research in sport has used samples of active athletes; few studies have considered how the transition out of sport might affect athletes’ perceptions of their bodies, their relationship to food, and their approaches to exercise and being physically active. Retirement from sport generally is considered to be a developmental stressor and thus may exacerbate ED symptoms and body image concerns in some athletes. Yet, for other athletes, retirement may represent a positive transition in which they emerge from a sport culture, focused on weight and appearance, to reclaim themselves and their bodies. Initial qualitative findings appear to support each hypothesis in part, though longitudinal quantitative studies that track athletes from active competition through retirement are needed to understand the changes athletes experience in relation to their bodies, food, and exercise, and when such changes are most likely to occur.

Keywords: eating disorders, prevalence, retirement, assessment, sport pressures

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