Ice Reflections on Eating and Image

Figure skaters consume too few calories though weight is normal

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) When figure skaters fall, they typically don't have much to protect their bones naturally from damage since they're under such pressure to be thin.

Most elite figure skaters don't eat enough to meet their energy needs and almost half feel they are overweight, according to a recently published study.

They should be encouraged by coaches, trainers and other officials to consume enough to meet the demands of their sport and be able to develop properly, researchers said.

"Eat healthy."

In a sport that quietly values leanness but needs the energy to jump and spin, figure skaters are often suspected of developing eating disorders.

The study, led by Johanna Dwyer, RD, director of the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, looked at the attitudes of 36 elite adolescent figure skaters towards eating and their dietary intake, as well as what risks they're taking in their nutritional habits.

The skaters, all who were girls ranging between 13 and 22 years of age, attended a national training camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they took an Eating Attitudes Test measuring their behaviors and feelings towards body weight and eating control. The tool is a widely used self-report that had been utilized in other studies on figure skaters.

They recorded what they ate for three days and tracked how much they exercised in the middle of the training season between 1998 and 1999.

Researchers took their blood samples after fasting for 12 hours and recorded their height and weight.

They found the skaters' body mass index, which measures their height and weight together, falls within the normal range at 19.8 on average. Only one skater was classified as underweight.

About 70 percent did not report losing weight recently, and 25 percent were actively gaining weight.

Skaters consumed less than 1,500 calories a day on average with almost two-thirds from carbohydrates and less than a quarter from fat. Their diet was low in total energy and bone-building nutrients, researchers said.

The skaters were actually consuming fewer calories than what they were burning from physical activity.

"The athletes reported dietary intakes that were far below estimated energy needs and were at moderate risk of disordered eating," researchers wrote in their report.

Concerning attitudes, almost 40 percent of the skaters thought they were overweight and 22 percent were told by others that they were.

Most skaters reported not consuming enough calcium, iron, magnesium and other important macronutrients, and more than two-thirds did not take any supplements to meet that need.

Skaters with better attitudes towards eating tended to be older and have higher BMIs. Few reported that they agreed with pathological weight control, such as vomiting after eating or taking laxatives.

However, about 85 percent reported not enjoying new rich foods and more than half showed more self-control around food.

The researchers said coaches, partners and officials are key to how skaters perceive their body and stature.

"Therefore, it is important for training staff and skaters to understand healthful BMI ranges for elite athletes," they said.

"Nutrition education efforts should focus on helping skaters understand the relationship between weight and health and learn methods to maintain optimal weight-for-height while meeting the physical demands of the sport with nutrition intervention."

The authors note they relied on self-reported data, which may not have been completely accurate. Some of the records may be incomplete or missing, and the results can't be applied to what may happen during off-season training.

The study, funded by grants from the US Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research Education & Extension and the USDA Agricultural Research Service, was published online December 13 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 16, 2012
Last Updated:
February 8, 2013