Eating disorders or disordered eating behaviors are not a secret to the climbing community, but why do we treat them as though they are? Recently, if you’ve been paying attention to Beth Rodden’s Instagram posts about body image, or if you’ve listened to one of the more recent TrainingBeta Podcast Episodes, TBP 151: Body Image and Disordered Eating Among Climbers, you’ll notice more people have been openly talking about them and sharing their experiences.
While people tend to associate eating disorders with anorexia, it’s important to know that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes and do not discriminate when it comes to gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic statuses.
Today, we’re lucky to have Nate Pierce share his experience with us. Nate is a climber from Ohio living out of his van who has had his own struggle with disordered eating. In this article, he describes his experience with this battle, how climbing has shaped his thoughts and feelings towards food, and how he tries to approach his relationship with food now.
Above everything, it’s important to remember that chasing perfectionism when it comes to your diet or your relationship with food is an unrealistic and unattainable approach. There is perfection in imperfection. You do not need to look a certain way to be accepted, and you belong in the climbing community no matter what you look like and what intersections you identify with. The elitism towards body weight, shape, and composition in climbing needs to end now.
Lastly, eating disorders can affect anyone. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, we encourage you to seek help and a support system as soon as you can.
TRIGGER WARNING: If you are suffering from an eating disorder, the content in this article may be triggering. Please, refrain from reading beyond this point if this applies to you.
Photo of Nate nearing the crux on “Highway Man” 5.12a by Jonathan Siegrist
“Dude it has to be pasta..”
“I’m pretty sure pasta is the only logical option at this point.”
These thoughts raced through my head as I sat at the marble countertop bar of Olive Garden (as controversial as that may be for all the die hard Italian fans).
As the bartender approached, I felt the pressure building. What words were going to spew from my mouth when he asked for my order? Should I look at the menu again? Should I aim for a healthier option? Was there a correct answer to any of these questions? My social anxiety kicking in, I panicked inside as he stood before me, as though I was an introvert on the first day of class waiting to answer the call to attendance.
“So Nate, will it be the usual today?”
His words snapped me back to reality. My silent self reassurance gave me momentary pause— I have a usual… I come here all the time… You were all worked up for nothing.
“You know what Drew, I think I will have the usual.”
As he walked away I did a small cheer inside. Spending a large portion of my time outside of climbing by myself, I was ritualistically prepared for this moment. I propped my phone up on the counter, opened up my Netflix account (okay maybe it’s not technically mine), and slid my AirPods into my ears with a gentle smile on my face.
A few minutes later, I was savoring every bite of the classic, Italian dressing drenched salad that I knew and loved so well— only taking a break to sip my red berry sangria, or to change episodes on my phone.
Yet when my entree (the chicken and shrimp carbonara with angel hair pasta) finally arrived, my world stopped, and the gears of my brain began to turn. I could hear their incessant grinding as clearly as a doctor listening to a heartbeat via stethoscope, and my unhealthy thought patterns began to consume me.
“This might actually be too many calories.”
“Have you even weighed yourself today?”
“You’re trying to lose weight remember??”
“Well you skipped breakfast and had a light lunch so you kind of have to eat it.”
“Am I gonna climb worse in the morning if I eat all this?”
The seemingly endless questions ran across my mind like the end credits to a film.
My stomach growled. I cringed. Too hungry to ignore the plea from my belly, I picked up the fork and tore through the food.
Driving home that night— by home I mean finding a suitable place to park my Jeep Cherokee I was living out of— I felt disgusted with myself. I was confident I’d actually explode if I ate one more bite. If only there was a way to rid myself of this feeling…
That was when it came to me.
I’d never forced myself to throw up before, but it seemed simple enough.
That night would later be the first time I ever purged. I felt amazing when the deed was done. I’d eaten to my hearts content, then rid myself of the calories— no gaining weight for me. Comparable to Alice gliding her way down the rabbit hole, thus my slippery slope began. In the beginning things ran smoothly. I was seeing what I felt were good weight loss results when I stepped on the scale in the gym every day, and I wasn’t feeling too heavy when it was time to climb— but that was all in the beginning.
Very soon that new twinkle of vitality in my eye disappeared, and my eyes grew tired.
My energy levels plummeted throughout the day, I was spending more money on food but not benefiting from hardly any of it, but worst of all, I had stopped losing weight.
The scale dictated my days, dictated my mood, dictated how well I was going to climb that day—so naturally I was mortified.
Feeling I’d lost my sense of direction, I hypothetically confided in a friend at the gym.
“A lot of these guys are pretty thin. Do you think any of them kinda starve themselves for climbing?”
“Hard to say, I guess it’s possible, but I don’t really see any of them having that “if I don’t love it I don’t swallow” mentality, like the food critic from Ratatouille. I feel like guys don’t care about that sort of thing as much.”
“Yeah you’re probably right.”
She had no way of knowing how her words had scarred me, given that I’d been taking laxatives prior to my gym sessions for about a week at that point, in an exhaustive effort to maximize my sessions.
Not long after, I was at a live podcast for two of my climbing mentors/friends—Mark Hudon and Jordan Cannon. During the podcast, Mark said something that hit me like an eighteen wheeler.
“If it ain’t fun, it ain’t done.”
There’s so much ego and self-worth wrapped up in climbing for the younger crowd; but having time, and thus wisdom on his side, Mark knew better. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, if you leave the crag without having had fun, you did the day wrong. As much as I’d been struggling and tormenting myself—attempting to force my body to adapt—I’d completely forgotten that when you strip away everything else, I loved to climb because it was fun. It brings me peace and joy, two cornerstones of my life, and I wasn’t allowing those feelings to flow through me.
Fast forward to a week ago in Rifle canyon.
Oatmeal and a protein shake for breakfast. Climb. Two sandwiches for lunch. Climb. Ground turkey and rice for dinner, and mini M&M’s for the campfire in the evening. Recently a friend of mine told me to try to approach my relationship with food and eating with curiosity and non-judgment, instead of shame and criticism; and that’s precisely what I try to do every day.
This isn’t to say that I’m “fixed” and no longer struggle— that couldn’t be further from the truth. Having a positive relationship with food is a constant journey, one that must be more carefully managed for some (i.e. myself) than others, and that’s okay. I’ve grown to see that in similar fashion to climbing, managing ED’s never truly gets easier, you just get stronger.
I don’t always eat the healthiest thing, sometimes I’ll mindlessly skip a meal, and other times I eat too much. I definitely don’t have all the answers; but if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that as I sat around that campfire the other night savoring my mini M&M’s… I really wished I could trade them for some pasta.