The problem with “Out of the Shadows” and the climbing community’s eating disorder “interventions”

by Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD

Oh boy, here we go. I have avoided writing this for months. I don’t like conflict. Like really, really don’t like it. Especially online, with anonymous keyboard warriors who attack with full force and little nuance (and very rarely know what they are talking about when it comes to nutrition).

So why am I writing this? Why is this blog post here?

Because it is problematic when an article claiming to combat eating disorders is imbedded with behaviors and recommendations that promote disordered eating. We cannot prevent or treat eating disorders by recommending disordered behavior.

And that is exactly what Out of the Shadows does.

Out of the Shadows is an article about eating disorders in climbing, found at gymclimber.com

As an eating disorder professional, it has been my passion and main focus for the past several years to bring resources to the climbing community. Climbers are suffering, and they don’t know where to turn for help.

As a registered dietitian, I have extensive training and experience in evidence-based practices that qualify me to administer medical nutrition therapy and treat those going through eating disorders. I have made it my mission (hence this website!) to provide science-backed information to climbers. My hope is to start filling that void of good climbing nutrition information.

I started on this journey mainly because most of the nutrition information I saw in the climbing world was alarmingly inaccurate, written by coaches and trainers who really had no idea what they were talking about and were far outside of their scope of practice.

Before we go any further, let me make one thing clear: This is not an attack on the author of the article, the people quoted in the article, or Gym Climber magazine. I have no issues with any of these people, nor do I know them.

When I read Out of the Shadows, I was immediately alarmed and concerned. I tried to resolve this in a private way before making this public. I emailed the editors of Gym Climber, asking them to either pull the article or print a correction, and outlined all my concerns with the article. They flatly refused to do either.

I private messaged the author on Instagram, voicing my concerns. He was dismissive and and told me my concerns were opinions and theories, even though my concerns are based on mounds of scientific evidence.

So, with that background, I take you to my critique of Out of the Shadows–NOT to defame. NOT to attack. ONLY to inform and enlighten, and combat harmful misinformation. Because if we let misinformation stand, we do harm.

My intent is to have a productive way to help people identify eating disorder behaviors and thought patterns. Hopefully you will have a positive mind shift as you read this.

The article starts out innocently enough, and has some good paragraphs discussing what eating disorders are. But it quickly takes a turn for the worse with some key problematic paragraphs.

Read this one:

Why is this paragraph a problem? Sounds reasonable, right? NO. If a coach, fellow climber, parent, or trainer is asked by a climber, “Do I need to lose weight to climb better?” The answer is a firm and definite NO. We have several studies looking at climbing ability, none of which definitively say that weight is correlated with climbing ability.

In fact, there are over 40 factors that determine sports performance aside from weight. To explore more, I’ve written up a guide for athletes that outlines these factors, plus a ton more stuff around eating disorders, body image, and relationship with food. Yes, there are references. Glad you asked.

In my own scientific, peer-reviewed research, I found that climbing ability was more associated with years of climbing experience and hours per week of climbing. Weight is not closely associated with climbing ability, and has been verified by other researchers, as shown in this slide below. There’s also a nice blog post written by one of these researchers on this site.

So no, you do not need to tell an “overweight” climber they need to lose weight in order to climb better. And no, you don’t need to tell a “normal” weight climber that either. Focus on other variables, such as skills, strength, flexibility, and endurance.

“If you tell a climber that body weight makes no difference, then you will lose their trust and respect,” says this article. Also NO. You will be complicit in eating disorder culture if you encourage weight loss. You will deny science. Instead, reframe the way they think about weight. It is only one variable (and a tiny one at that–researchers estimate weight only explains 1.8-4% of climbing ability). And diet is only one tiny variable of body weight. It’s incredibly difficult to control body weight. To focus on weight and diet in order to improve climbing ability is not productive.

If you want to learn more about the nuances of this, go to my article I wrote up for Gym Climber, Is Lightweight the Right Weight? and one I wrote up for Climbing Magazine Why Underfueling Will Lead to Underperforming.

Ok, still with me? Good. Here we go with the next problematic paragraph:

Oh no, no no. There are a lot of layers to this.

We should never be asking any child about their food choices. Full stop. Food choices are complex. They are dictated by food availability, taste preference, food security, and more. Children don’t often have power over their food choices. To ask a child about their food choices is loaded with all sorts of things the child may not be able to answer and has no control over. This suggestion is just food shaming.

If a child is going through eating disorder treatment, they may have been instructed to eat “fear foods” as part of exposure therapy. These foods are often considered “unhealthy” to the outside observer. Imagine if a child has a deep fear of Oreos, but as part of their eating disorder recovery, they are bringing Oreos as a snack to climbing practice. Then imagine the coach food shaming them. Just no. Please stop judging others for their food choices. Eyes on your own plate.

Implying that a child needs to have every food choice be healthy is teaching the child rigidity in food choices, which is a hallmark of eating disorder behavior. Every food choice does not and should not be healthy.

Identifying a child as overweight is not appropriate. Many children gain weight during puberty–which is natural, normal, and appropriate. A child may appear overweight or “fluffy” for a time, and then grow taller. Any coach who thinks they can identify “overweight” or “underweight” is mistaken. No one should be lumping children into these categories. Growth charts, family body types, and health history all need to be considered–which is far outside the scope of practice of a coach.

Categorizing people based on outward appearance is missing the point. Eating disorders come in all body shapes and sizes. An “underweight” child or an “overweight” child may equally be suffering from an eating disorder. Asking an “overweight” child if all their food choices is healthy is assuming they do not have an eating disorder. YOU DON’T KNOW IF SOMEONE HAS AN EATING DISORDER JUST BY LOOKING AT THEM. It is also body shaming and food shaming all rolled into one horrible sentence.

Next paragraphs:

Can you see me do a giant forehead slap? Ugh.

  • “Processed foods” is a broad and nonspecific, non-helpful term. Baby carrots are processed. So are steel cut oats. Also, what? No one can eat processed foods ever? Again, this is promoting rigidity in eating, which is a key sign of an eating disorder.
  • Not only that, but highly processed foods such as sports drinks, gummies, and white bagels have loads of evidence to support their use in enhancing sports performance. Sports drinks are specifically formulated to deliver electrolytes and quickly-digesting carbohydrates to fuel and hydrate during exercise.
  • Cooking from scratch and needing to know “exactly what you are eating” is disordered eating. Plain and simple. Perfect textbook example of someone suffering from anorexia and orthorexia. Please, guys, do not promote orthorexia in an eating disorder article. It’s just gross and inappropriate.
  • Very active children may need more than just a snack. They may need big meals, multiple times per day. Teach them to honor their hunger, not to follow arbitrary diet rules to just have a “little snack” to “tide you over” before the next meal.

On to the next paragraphs:

Ok, again, lots to these paragraphs. Let’s break it down.

  • Body composition has very little to do with eating behaviors, especially in adolescents. Also body composition will not tell a coach anything about their bone density status or menstrual status. This is not the way you assess either of these things. Yes, bone mineral density can be measured by a DEXA machine, which also measures body composition, but they didn’t state that here and didn’t explain the difference between these two measurements.
  • Coaches shouldn’t measure body composition for a number of reasons: It’s outside their scope of practice, it doesn’t affect how they coach (or at least it shouldn’t! Coaches need to teach skills, flexibility, endurance, strength–body composition is irrelevant), they are not trained measure accurately, (unless they are ISAK certified), they do not have access to growth charts, and they should not be collecting this sensitive medical data, and they likely don’t store the data according to patient privacy laws.
  • Measuring for bone density and blood “functioning” (whatever the heck that means–clearly this author doesn’t have training in labs) is FAR, FAR outside the scope of practice as a coach. This should be done with a medical professional who has specific training in how to interpret the results, which labs to order, and what to do in the event of an abnormal result. No coach should ever be looking at labs. Again, it doesn’t affect how they need to coach, and they are at risk for breaching patient privacy medical information laws (HIPAA in the US) if they collect and store this information.
  • Adolescent athletes should not be measured or weighed regularly by their trainers. Frankly, neither should adults. Trainers should train, that is it. An eating disorder is a mental illness. You cannot recognize an eating disorder by height and weight. Weight is a private medical measurement that does not and should not be collected by a trainer or coach. And again, it tells the coach nothing about how to train the athlete. It does inform safe belay practices, but this can be done without taking a specific weight. If a kid is smaller than another kid they are belaying, just anchor them into the floor. That’s it.
  • In order to keep athletes safe, you can implement an annual screening protocol where they need to get a sports physical by their doctor before training or competing. Leave the measurements, screening, and labs to the doctors. All the coach needs to know is if the doctor medically cleared the athlete for training.

Again, here we go with the coaches operating outside the scope of practice. The coach should never assist in a weight loss program. NEVER. There, I said it. Even if the coach has some nutrition training, this is still wildly inappropriate. Coaches are not trained to do this type of intervention. If they are attempting it, harm will most likely occur, particularly in adolescents. It is not appropriate or necessary for adolescents to lose weight.

Burrows is wrong that protein has the least amount of calories per macronutrient. Protein ties with carbohydrate at 4 grams per calorie. But again, this article misses the point. If you really want to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. Thankfully, this article didn’t talk about that, because discussing weight loss in an eating disorder article is so wrong on so many levels.

If they are making recommendations for a kid, which it sounds like they have been, then telling them to eat large quantities of vegetables, paired with protein, is not supported in the scientific literature. Kids and adults alike need carbohydrates. Active people need an increased amount to fuel their sport. In addition, fiber and protein are very filling. An adolescent could sit down and eat a plateful of chicken and vegetables and walk away feeling stuffed, but they are not getting adequate calories if they are too full. This puts them at risk for relative energy deficiency in sport.

It’s also not ok to tell someone that eating a “more healthy diet will improve their performance.” Because diet is only a teeny, tiny part of performance, and “more” healthy is subjective (where did their diet start out? Already pretty healthy? Is “more” healthy now an eating disorder?).

Ok we’re at the end. Thanks for sticking with me. I hope this opened up your eyes a bit to the dangerous things we may say that do harm when we don’t intend to.

Some things to consider:

  • Try to have weight-neutral conversations with fellow climbers
  • Do not give unsolicited advice about their climbing performance relating to weight (see this excellent article in Climbing Magazine by Caroline Wickes to see how this can be a bad idea)
  • Do not comment on others’ food choices
  • Stay within your own scope of practice
  • If you suspect a problem, refer to a competent medical professional trained in eating disorders.
  • National Eating Disorder Association hotline: 1-800-931-2237

For more information:

a 56-page fillable PDF chock full of information on eating disorders, journaling prompts, tips for athletes, coaches, parents, and more.
Click here to learn about this book Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send

Article in Gym Climber about weight and climbing ability

Article in Climbing Magazine about RED-S

My published research on adolescent dietary intake and risk for ED

My podcast interview on TrainingBeta on ED and RED-S

Blog post about losing weight and climbing, risk for RED-S

Dr. Lanae Joubert’s published research on prevalence of ED in elite climbers

Dr. Kate Bennet’s interview on climbing and eating disorders on the TrainingBeta podcast

Caroline Wickes on climbing and eating disorders on the Power Company podcast

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