Ballet Dancers at Risk for Eating Disorders

Some sports are especially focused on a lean physical appearance for females. Participating in a sport such as gymnastics or figure skating can put pressure on young women to maintain a particular weight, and disordered patterns of eating behaviors often push them into dangerous malnutrition. A recent study examined the risk of eating disorders among ballet dancers, another sphere where physical appearance is perceived as critical for success. The study was led by Rebecca Ringham of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Philadelphia. The small study focused on 29 professional and college ballet dancers. The researchers found that 7 percent of the dancers had met the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, a much higher rate than the 4 percent estimated by experts to be suffering from anorexia among the general population. Anorexia is known to be a problem among ballet dancers. What the researchers found, however, is that other, less obvious types of eating disorders are also common in the ballet world. Bulimia affects even more dancers than anorexia, with more than 10 percent suffering from a binge and purge cycle of eating disorder. In addition, the researchers found that 55 percent of the dancers could be categorized as suffering from an (eating disorder not otherwise specified); or EDNOS. Dancers who have EDNOS may show symptoms of anorexia but still maintain a normal body weight. Or they may purge using laxatives but not consume large amounts of food at once, as those diagnosed with bulimia do. Those who carry these types of symptoms show some criteria for eating disorders, but fall short of an actual diagnosis. The researchers reported in the International Journal of Eating Disorders that in total, 83 percent of the ballet dancers had some type of eating-related pathology. Past research has shown that ballet dancers can be six times more likely to suffer from anorexia as the general public. The pressure to maintain the ideal ballerina image and perform difficult steps can cause pressure to severely limit caloric intake and engage in excessive levels of exercise. One area of concern highlighted by the study is the large number of ballet dancers who show some criteria for eating disorders but are not meeting criteria for diagnosis. Many dangerous behaviors are being hidden for a long period of time, potentially causing major physical health problems for the dancers. The authors of the study hope that the findings will raise awareness about the problem of disordered eating patterns among dancers.

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