Eating Disorders :: Dancers at risk of a range of eating disorders

While anorexia is a well-known problem of the ballet world, new research suggests that many more dancers suffer from bulimia and other less obvious eating disorders.

The small study, of 29 professional and college ballet dancers, found that 7 percent had ever met the diagnostic criteria for anorexia. By comparison, experts estimate that less than 4 percent of women in the general population suffer anorexia at some point in their lives.

But while anorexia was clearly a problem for these dancers, bulimia was an even greater one, affecting more than 10 percent. What’s more, a full 55 percent had ever suffered some symptoms of an eating disorder — putting them in the catch-all diagnostic category of “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or EDNOS.

In all, 83 percent of the dancers had some form of eating-related pathology, the study authors report in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. Rebecca Ringham of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania led the study.

Past studies have suggested that anorexia is as much as six times more common among ballet dancers than the general public. Pressure to both perform highly athletic moves and have the “ideal” ballerina body pushes many dancers to severely limit their food intake and exercise to an excessive degree.

But the new findings suggest that many may also cycle through the bingeing and purging that marks bulimia, while even more may have certain symptoms of anorexia or bulimia but fall short of a formal diagnosis of either.

People who are instead diagnosed with EDNOS may, for example, have symptoms of anorexia but still weigh in the normal range. Or they may purge by abusing laxatives or vomiting, but not binge-eat, as in bulimia.

“The findings of the current study suggest that an alarmingly high number of dancers meet criteria for eating disorder diagnoses,” write Ringham and her colleagues.

Moreover, they add, dancers are at risk of “the entire range of eating pathology,” and not just anorexia alone.

One of the concerning points is that both bulimia and EDNOS can be tougher to recognize because they often don’t cause the extreme weight loss that comes with anorexia.

By highlighting how common these disorders are among dancers, Ringham’s team concludes, the current findings may lead to greater awareness and diagnosis of the problems.

SOURCE: International Journal of Eating Disorders, September 2006.

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