In the fashion industry, disordered eating — namely, anorexia nervosa — is common, and sometimes necessary to gain the ideal look for a catwalk. In the bodybuilding industry, figure and bodybuilding competitors are also prone to eating disordered behavior. Obsessing about body fat, certain foods or clean eating can intensify these feelings.
The Connection Between Eating Disorders and Bodybuilding
First, let’s look at what an eating disorder is in a general context. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders are characterized by serious mental and physical issues surrounding weight and food. People with eating disorders develop severe, extreme behaviors and attitudes, which can include self-starvation (anorexia nervosa), vomiting up food (bulimia nervosa) and uncontrollable binging sessions (binge eating disorder).
In the bodybuilding industry, female bodybuilders can develop other eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is not common — it’s the complete opposite of a bodybuilder’s goal, which is to get bigger and stronger. Instead, some female bodybuilders become obsessed with their body’s development and develop a reverse anorexia called bigorexia. Now, there aren’t any studies that show how prevalent this eating disorder is in the bodybuilding community, but I have seen many bodybuilders exhibit bigorexia-like behavior. We’re not talking about five or six bodybuilders I’ve met — we’re talking about a much larger number here.
Orthorexia can also occur in female bodybuilders. This is an eating disorder where people become so obsessed with healthy eating that it consumes their lives, harming their mental and physical health. This isn’t just a case of eating healthy — this is a full-blown disorder where they literally fear unhealthy food and will even starve themselves to avoid “bad” food.
The problem here is that the bodybuilding industry promotes behavior common in orthorexics. Some bodybuilders recommend cutting out sugar, even going as far to eliminate fruit because of its sugar content. They may eliminate carbs from grain sources, avoid red meat or cut out dairy because they believe it negatively impacts their waistline and their health. One bodybuilder even recommended avoiding luncheon meat because it could slow down the metabolism. While she offered no scientific reasoning behind her claim, many people believed her, simply because she was a bodybuilder.
Bulimia nervosa is also more common in bodybuilders compared to those involved in different sports. A 1994 study by Blouin and Goldfield showed that bodybuilders had more bulimic tendencies than runners or martial artists.
Interestingly enough, they also noted that the bodybuilders in the control group were the least educated. Uneducated bodybuilders, or at least those without a firm grasp on proper nutrition or exercise, may not know how to train to improve their bodies. This can result in strange, ineffective rituals designed to promote muscle building or fat loss. In the bodybuilding community, this is usually called “broscience”.
Which Bodybuilders Are at Risk?
Chances are if you’re already involved in bodybuilding, the competitive level of this sport may spurn eating disordered behavior. This is especially true if you’re an active amateur or professional competitor. These warning signs are indicative of eating disordered behavior:
- Constantly obsessing about clean eating
- Avoiding social events or outings in fear of eating “bad” food
- Using laxatives or diuretics to lower weight
- Compulsively exercising to get rid of an excess of calories
- Getting extremely upset over eating the wrong foods or calories
- Cutting out visits with friends or family members to focus on bodybuilding
- Purging out cheat foods
- Lowering calories to extreme levels to lose body fat (1000 calories or less)
- Abusing thermogenic supplements
While a degree of food control and exercise is necessary to compete, some dietary habits are not necessary to get “competition lean”. Some female bodybuilders believe certain foods can magically ruin their metabolism or weight, ignoring the more important factor — their caloric and macronutrient content.
If you believe you exhibit one or more of these risks, consider your current dietary attitudes. Is this obsession taking over your life? How much do you know about nutrition or exercise? Are your beliefs based on reliable, scientific facts or advice passed on by fellow bodybuilders? Although bodybuilders are certainly great inspirations, keep in mind they are not always a reliable source of information. Base your diet on scientific facts and recommendations given by accredited organizations — not the bodybuilder at your local gym.
If you believe you have eating disordered behavior, seek help offline. Therapy and nutritional counseling can help you develop better attitudes towards food, exercise and your body image.
National Eating Disorders Association