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Athletes with eating disordered symptoms more likely to develop depression according to UCLan study

05 September 2014

Lyndsey Boardman

Eating disorders and depression in athletes: does one lead to the other?

Image: UCLan sport psychology lecturer Dr Vaithehy Shanmugam

Athletes with eating disorders are more likely to develop depression according to research conducted by a University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) academic published in the Journal of Sport Sciences.

The study: Eating psychopathology as a risk factor for depressive symptoms in a sample of British athletes, was conducted by UCLan’s Dr Vaithehy Shanmugam, lecturer in sport psychology, with Dr Sophia Jowett and Dr Caroline Meyer from Loughborough University's School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences.

It asks whether depression leads to eating disorders in athletes or vice versa and suggests there is strong empirical evidence linking eating disorders and depression. Previous research to determine causality between the two conditions has been conflicting.

Dr Vaithehy Shanmugam commented: “For many, sport participation or engagement in physical activity is associated with positive outcomes such as increased self-esteem or improved physical and psychological health, but that is not to say that sport participation offers immunity against the onset of psychological disorders. Disordered eating/eating disorders and depressive symptoms are becoming a common feature of competitive sport, and this study focused on examining the directional relationship between these two disorders.

“For many, sport participation or engagement in physical activity is associated with positive outcomes such as increased self-esteem or improved physical and psychological health.”

“The findings suggest that disturbances in eating promote the onset of depression in athletes. This is not surprising given that athletes not only feel pressure to conform to the societal ideals of attaining and maintaining the perfect body, but also that of their sport environment to achieve the ideal body for their sport. Increased exposure to pressure from both, could result in dissatisfaction with body shape and weight, feelings of shame, guilt, especially if their body does not meet the set ideal, increased rumination and a low self-image, which can trigger the onset of depression.”

Many athletes face various stresses; pressure to train, perform well, financial hardship, as well as maintaining a balance with other aspects of their life such as study, family and friends. Athletes also face pressure to be body perfect. Top flight athletes follow performance boosting nutritional regimes which can deprive them of the nutrients and calories needed for optimal mental health.

With statistics noted of up to 17% of competitive athletes showing symptoms of psychiatric disorders and a paucity of research on the subject, the authors conducted a time lapse study where data was collated at two different times; at baseline and six months later.

“The findings suggest that disturbances in eating promote the onset of depression in athletes.”

122 British athletes completed questionnaires assessing weight, diet history, previous eating related diagnoses and desired weight. They were also quizzed on their attitudes to eating; restraint, fear of losing control, weight and self-image issues. Finally they were assessed on their mental state and checked for signs of clinical depression. Six months later, the athletes’ body mass index (BMI), eating habits and psychological state was checked.

The results make fascinating reading and conflict with the small amount of existing previous research.

It was found by a small margin that eating and diet disturbances were precursors to depressive tendencies. This is linked to existing research studies that suggest low self-esteem, failure to meet exacting physical standards, regimented eating and constant negative sport related pressure all add to the mix of why seemingly invincible athletes are affected.

Despite high profile cases of depressed athletes such as Michael Vaughn and Ricky Hatton, there remains a lack of research and education on behalf of and amongst vulnerable athletes.

The authors call for improved education programmes on nutrition and intervention strategies to minimise the risks for athletes. The full article is available online. (http://www.tandfonline.com/10.1080/02640414.2014.912758)