As many as three of every four female college athletes may be putting their future health at risk because of their erroneous dietary practices and poor eating habits, a Cornell University dietitian says.

A sample survey of 69 female athletes at a California college found 75 percent with bulimic or anorexic-type eating behaviors."More and more women, particularly college women, have become chronically obsessed with their body image and eating patterns, which may not only jeopardize their current health but possibly their future health as well," said Wanda Koszewski, director of the dietetics program in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell.

The study stressed, however, that a much smaller fraction will develop long-term problems.

"As many as 20 percent of these athletes will actually develop full-fledged eating disorders," Koszewski said Thursday in a telephone interview.

About 3 million women under 40 are thought to be affected by some symptoms of anorexia - self-starvation - or bulimia, according to the American Dietetic Association. Experts have estimated that 35 to 50 percent of college women have chronic obsessive-eating problems.

The Cornell study further reinforces those alarming statistics and suggests that athletes suffer even worse eating problems, according to other nutritionists.

"It's been shown that athletes, especially females, are more prone to eating disorders," said Evelyn Tribole, an ADA spokeswoman who teaches sports nutrition at Irvine Valley College in California.

"They're so obsessed with weight and fat. They're not looking at food as fuel. Food is the enemy," said Tribole, who was a competitive runner in college.

Randy Dick, the assistant director of sports science for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, couldn't comment on the severity of the problem on an individual basis. But the NCAA confirmed the prevalence of eating disorders on an institutional basis through its own study, which appears in the summer issue of "Athletic Training," the journal of the National Athletic Trainer's Association.

The NCAA surveyed its 830 members and got responses from 60 percent. Forty percent of those answering reported experiencing at least one incident of anorexia or bulimia in their athletic programs during the last two years, Dick said.

Eating disorders were reported in 15 of the 17 women's sports governed by the NCAA and in 11 of the NCAA's 20 men's sports, he said. Gymnastics was the sport with the highest incident rate with half of the schools reporting eating disorders.

"It's not just a problem localized to a few sports. It's widespread," Dick said.

The NCAA was not trying to determine the number of individual athletes suffering eating disorders, but rather was attempting to gauge the extent of the problem, he said.

"We were asking administrators to make medical diagnoses. But even the perception justifies the need to be more informed. We're probably even underestimating the problem," Dick said.

The NCAA has sent out informational videotapes to help schools recognize and handle eating disorder problems, he said.

Koszewski, who has submitted her findings to the ADA for publication, said that although athletes are more attentive to nutrition information and seemingly better informed, they fail to interpret and incorporate their knowledge properly into their eating behaviors.

"Athletes will do anything to give themselves the winning edge. They don't really understand the relationship between their diet and their performance," she said.

Koszewski's study also surveyed 69 male athletes at the college, which she declined to identify. Up to 20 percent of the men displayed traits associated with eating disorders, she said.

Among the sample survey's other findings:

- In an effort to reduce body fat, the already underweight female athletes were ingesting about 30 percent fewer calories than recommended. In many cases, the female athletes still felt they were overeating.

- Most athletes took vitamin-mineral or protein supplements unnecessarily and felt the supplements were needed for them to be successful.

- Male athletes erroneously believed that high protein intake would boost their muscle mass. Many were ingesting two to three times the recommended dietary allowances for protein, thereby stressing their kidneys and liver but doing nothing for their muscles.