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Weight-control behaviour and weight-concerns in young elite athletes – a systematic review

Anne Werner1*, Ansgar Thiel2, Sven Schneider3, Jochen Mayer2, Katrin E Giel1 and Stephan Zipfel1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, University Hospital Tübingen, Osianderstr, 5, 72076, Tübingen, Germany

2 Institute of Sports Science, Tübingen University, Tübingen, Germany

3 Mannheim Institute of Public Health, Social and Preventive Medicine, Medical Faculty Mannheim, Heidelberg University, Mannheim, Germany

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Journal of Eating Disorders 2013, 1:18  doi:10.1186/2050-2974-1-18

Published: 30 May 2013


Weight-control behaviour is commonly observed in a wide range of elite sports, especially leanness sports, where control over body weight is crucial for high peak performance. Nonetheless, there is only a fine line between purely functional behaviour and clinically relevant eating disorders. Especially the rapid form of weight manipulation seems to foster later eating disorders. So far, most studies have focussed on adult athletes and concentrated on manifest eating disorders. In contrast, our review concentrates on young athletes and weight-control behaviour as a risk factor for eating disorders.

An electronic search according to PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) Statement was performed using Pubmed, PsychInfo and Spolit. The following search terms were used: weight-control, weight-control behaviour, weight gain, weight loss, pathogenic weight-control behaviour and weight-concerns, each of them combined with elite athlete, young elite athlete, adolescent elite athlete and elite sports.

Overall, data are inconsistent. In general, athletes do not seem to be at a higher risk for pathogenic weight concerns and weight-control behaviour. It does seem to be more prevalent in leanness sports, though. There is evidence for pathogenic weight-control behaviour in both genders; male athletes mostly trying to gain weight whereas females emphasise weight reduction. There is not enough data to make predictions about connections with age of onset.

Young elite athletes do show weight-control behaviour with varying degrees of frequency and severity. In particular, leanness sports seem to be a risk factor for weight manipulation. Further research is needed for more details and possible connections.

Young elite athlete; Weight-control behaviour; Weight concern; Leanness sports