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Disordered Eating Poses a Danger to Climbers

Advanced female athletes are most at risk for eating disorders, a new survey reveals

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Rock climbing eating disorders study sport elite athletes
Kevin Riley/

When she was 17, pro climber Claire Bukowski was eating 1,000 calories and less than 10 grams of carbohydrates a day. At the same time, she was training hard for climbing—she’d wear a heart rate monitor to make sure she burned through those 1,000 calories.

Soon, it became counterproductive. “I was not progressing at all anymore,” Bukowski says, now 20 years old. “I was so weak, I felt like I was shaking all the time.” What had started out as an attempt to eat healthier had devolved into an unhealthy habit of calorie counting and restricting. Most calories are burnt just maintaining our basic bodily functions, rather than in exercise, so her routine had likely caused a large caloric deficit.

Disordered eating is unfortunately common in climbing and especially high in advanced female athletes, according to a recent survey led by Lanae Joubert, a dietitian and professor of nutrition at Northern Michigan University. In July, she presented her findings of the first-ever survey of disordered eating in climbers at the International Rock Climbing Research Congress in Chamonix.

Elite athletes of many sports are prone to eating disorders. In 2004, a study of 1,620 Norwegian athletes found that 13.5 percent had subclinical or clinical eating disorders. This proportion was much higher than that of a control sample of the general population, which was 4.6 percent.

While many athlete populations have been surveyed, Joubert—herself a climber—noticed that there was little information on climbers. “Many climbers I climbed with were concerned with how heavy they felt,” she says. So, she began to wonder how prevalent this concern was in the climbing world and whether it was related to unhealthy eating behaviors.

Relationships with food, she says, fall on a continuum, with “normal” eating on one side and diagnosable eating disorders on the other. Surveys used to detect disordered eating gauge whether an individual is sliding toward the eating disorder end of the spectrum.

To find out how many climbers might be at risk, Joubert teamed up with International Rock Climbing Research Association officials to send out a web survey on eating behaviors internationally. It was based on the EAT-26 survey, a commonly-used tool that asks participants to rate how much they agree with statements such as “I am terrified about being overweight” and “I’m aware of the calorie content of foods that I eat.”

While 604 climbers completed the survey, she chose to focus on the 498 sport climbers for the first phase of analyzing her data. Of that group, the number of climbers with symptoms of eating disorders was nine percent. In women, that proportion was 17 percent. And in female athletes climbing at about 5.13b and above, this number spiked to 43 percent.

Joubert says she wasn’t surprised by her findings. “We thought we would see more prevalence in the higher elite athletes,” she says. These competitive athletes might be trying to gain an edge by raising their strength-to-weight ratio; a little less weight on the fingertips can make a difference on hard climbs.

This was a big part of Bukowski’s motivation. “In climbing, there’s so much stress on how much weight you have to carry up the wall—if you can just be 10 pounds lighter, you’ll see that translate directly [to performance],” she says. “But it comes at the risk of sacrificing your muscles [and] the health of your organs.” She adds that unrealistic beauty standards targeted at women also made her feel like she needed to lose weight.

It seems other female athletes may feel these pressures. For example, in the aforementioned Norwegian study, 42 percent of female athletes in “aesthetic sports”—this includes dance, gymnastics, and swimming—had symptoms of an eating disorder.

But these surveys can only tell us so much. EAT-26 reveals, for example, how much thought a person is putting toward their meals. This is a good diagnostic for the general population—if a person who is not a competitive athlete is obsessing over their food intake, it’s more likely to mean that they’re developing a disorder. However, for athletes, close attention to nutrients and calories sometimes can make a difference in performance. Some might be simply concerned that they’re not getting enough food to meet their muscles’ increased demand for fuel.

Despite the test’s imperfections, we should still be concerned, says Joubert. “It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t already be addressing people’s eating patterns,” she says. “We should be helping people eat, to prepare for the sport and maintain their health in the long haul.”

A lot of nutrition information, including advice targeted at climbers, isn’t based on scientific evidence, she says. She worries that many athletes are led by bad nutrition advice to eat too little, sapping themselves of the energy needed for peak performance. Poor planning, too, can have health consequences. Joubert points to a practice she sees often: packing minimal food for a day out climbing. Then, this perhaps unintentional fast is broken by a binge of greasy, nutrient-poor food for dinner. This pattern—and other forms of disordered eating—can, over time, harm an athlete’s performance by way of nutrient deficiencies, leading to a suppressed immune system and greater chance of injury.

Because our nutrient needs and relationships to our bodies are so individualized, it’s hard to quickly diagnose an eating disorder. But, a major red flag, says Joubert, is when someone is planning or otherwise thinking of food 50 or more percent of the time. “If the majority of your time during the day is spent thinking about what you’re going to eat, then there may be a further assessment needed.”

Despite the concern of her friends, it took a while for Bukowski to admit she had a problem, because, as she puts it, “At first you’re convinced that everyone else is wrong—it’s this weird mindset that is so hard to break out of.”

But, eventually, she was simply over feeling weak and hungry. To recover, she had to quit counting calories and meet with a therapist. Talking about her eating disorder helped, too. She told her family about her eating problems. She also wrote a blog about her struggle, and soon many climbers reached out to her and connected over having similar struggles. “Talking to other people that had had similar issues made me feel like I could get past it,” she says.

“I would rather be happy and not be starving myself all the time, because that qualify of life just isn’t right,” Bukowski says. “There’s something better out there than being the thinnest to be the best.”