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Wednesday, 24 February, 1999, 05:17 GMT 06:17 UK
Athletes plagued by eating disorders
Long distance runners
Long distance runners are vulnerable to eating disorders
A campaign is to be launched to tackle the growing problem of eating disorders in sport.

The Eating Disorders Association has joined forces with the British Olympic Association and UK Athletics to highlight the dangers faced by athletes.

Research carried out at the University of Leeds by former international marathon runner Dr Angie Hulley shows that almost one in 10 of Britain's top female distance runners have some kind of eating disorder.

The widespread nature of the problem was illustrated by the fact that five out of seven of the under 20 UK World Championship cross-country team in 1996 admitted to suffering from an eating disorder.

Similar trends have been reported in sports such as gymnastics, ice-skating and tennis.

Campaign targets coaches and athletes

Among the general population, it is estimated that less than one per cent of people suffer from anorexia nervosa, and up to five per cent from the bingeing and purging disorder bulimia nervosa.

The new campaign will feature a series of leaflets giving advice on the early warning signs and risk of eating disorders.

The leaflets will be targeted at coaches, friends and family and the athletes themselves.

They will be widely distributed by the three organisations taking part in the campaign, who also hope to establish a network of experts who can be readily accessible to provide help and support.

The leaflets have been written by Peta Bee, a member of the UK Athletics working party on eating disorders.

Vulnerable personality

She said that athletics and other high performance sports might attract people whose personality made them vulnerable to eating disorders.

"They tend to like to train alone, to be driven to push themselves hard and to be perfectionists," she said.

Ms Bee said that in the short term reducing body fat could improve athletic performance as oxygen could be transported to the muscles more quickly.

But she warned that in the longer term loss of muscle bulk would reduce speed and power and badly affect athletic performance.

"In the very long term eating disorders can cause all sorts of problems," she said.

19-year-old 'suffered heart attack'

"Osteoporosis is common in people who suffer from eating disorders, young women of 17 can have the same bone density as a 75-year-old. The impact on the body's salt levels can cause kidney damage, and bulimia can lead to internal bleeding."

Ms Bee said in one case an eating disorder had led to a 19-year-old athlete suffering a heart attack.

"Intensive training will speed up weight loss and accelerate the process," she warned.

Nicky Bryant, chief executive of the Eating Disorders Association, said athletes were under intense pressure to perform well.

She said: "It may be that athletes find that through excessive exercise they can limit their weight and that, in the short term, can help run faster and perform better.

"But in the longer term restricting nutritional intake will reduce their ability to perform."

Ms Bryant said that taking excessive exercise as a means to control weight was commonly associated with anorexia.

"The earlier an eating disorder is diagnosed and help and treatment is started, the better the prognosis for recovery.

"We want to help people to spot the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, and to know how to seek help."

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