OPINION: Professional cyclists’ diets can lead to eating disorders

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Lance Armstrong, despite being banned from professional cycling competitions in recent years due to illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs, remains one of the most well-known professional cyclists.

During his 2004 season, when he was undoubtedly in his prime, The Telegraph published an article titled, “What does Lance eat for breakfast?” that detailed Armstrong’s diet after he became the first man to win the Tour de France six times.

The diet was limited to an egg dish for breakfast in order to maintain his carbohydrate storage, a lunch crafted by a team trainer consisting of banana and honey sandwiches, fruit and energy bars and post-ride meal of potatoes and chicken or lean steak. This added up to his recommended daily intake of 7,000 carb-heavy calories, according to The Telegraph article.

Seeing that cyclists’ slow times were often attributed to high weights and observing the careful portioning and planning that went into building meals for pro bike riders like Armstrong, amateur cyclist Shaun Riebl put himself on a “restricted” diet that eventually lead to anorexia, according to Robin Chotzinoff’s Bicycling article “The thin man.”

It is true for professional bicyclists, perhaps more so than athletes of any other sport, that dieting matters. But Riebl’s experience begs the question: Is the lifestyle and diet of a professional cyclist healthy for a human being to maintain?

The finish at a competition such as the Tour de France can be potentially decided by a few inches, so it is not uncommon for these riders searching to reach top speed and stamina to obsess over their weight-to-power ratio.

Due to this obsession, it is difficult to remain healthy, but in my opinion, a diet like this should only be attempted with the aid of a dietitian.

Male cyclists are recommended to maintain between 6 and 13 percent body fat, while female riders should maintain between 14 and 20 percent, according to Sunny Griffis’ Livestrong.com article, “Ideal cycling weight.”

This is why pro cyclists are often “too skinny” by the normal health standards, it is necessary in order to compete at higher levels. Cyclists must train hours a day and manage a tough diet year-round to achieve peak performance during the season, Griffis said.

Some cyclists maintain as low as “4 percent body fat for (up to) three weeks,” before seeing a drop in performance, Team Garmin-Slipstream physiologist Allen Lim said in Chotzinoff’s Bicycling article.

This extreme focus on weight can be potentially dangerous in cases such as Riebl’s, however, the statistics in the field of eating disorders for cyclists show that women who cycle are at a higher risk, according to a Cycling News special report in 2003 about eating disorders.

Thirty percent of elite female and 10 percent of elite male cyclists had issues with eating disorders such as bulimia, osteoporosis and anorexia, the report said.

In 1992, “(Leontien) Van Moorsel won the challenging women’s Tour de France as well as becoming world champion in 1993, however at the end of 1993, she began to suffer health problems as a result of being too thin and was forced to retire from the sport at the peak of her success,” according to the report. She rejoined the sport later, this time as an advocate for young athletes’ healthy eating.

It wasn’t until roughly 10 years ago that male cyclists were able to be diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia, as the disorders were seen as pervasive to females alone. Theodore Weltzin, who directs the country’s only residential treatment program for men, said, “In the past five years (before 2010), we’ve seen more than twice as many men,” according to Chotzinoff’s Bicycling article.

The concentrated calorie counting, carb loading and extreme cardio workouts that go along with professional cycling are not for everyone. I would go as far to say professional cycling is not for most people.

However, with a dietitian who knows what needs to be taken into the body and how much exertion is too much, the process can be done right and a target weight can be achieved without becoming unhealthy. The danger in cyclists’ weights comes from inexperienced cyclists who are trying to drop weight with poor diet management, as that can lead to eating disorders.