Eating disorders affecting men in the fitness community

Men in fitness are susceptible to eating disorders and body dysmorphia due to the media’s presentation of male beauty standards. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

In the Recreation Center’s basement, “gym bros” are found in the free weight room, profusely sweating and grunting loudly with every heavy lift. These guys’ biceps are barely contained by their sweat-stained “GSU Football” Gildan T-shirts. These men can also be intimidating, especially to someone who doesn’t frequent the gym.

Some people go to the gym in hopes of coming out looking like a member of Georgia State’s powerlifting club. To be lean, cut and muscular is to be in shape, confident and healthy. But sometimes, it’s not.

Beauty standards for men and women are the inverse of each other. For women, beautiful means thin and toned, but not too muscular. And for men, attractive means shredded and muscular but not too skinny. Oversaturation of unattainable beauty standards for women results in over half of teenage girls engaging in unhealthy weight loss methods like skipping meals, using laxatives or fasting.

Professionals are more likely to diagnose women with an eating disorder before their health declines detrimentally, as the signs and symptoms are easier to spot than they are in men. But men suffer from eating disorders just as much as women, but some men suffer differently.

The term “bigorexia,” or muscle dysmorphia, is a condition that primarily affects male bodybuilders. People with this condition obsess over being more muscular and typically see themselves as not muscular enough. Someone with muscle dysmorphia may spend an excessive amount of time working out, overspend on fitness supplements and engage in abnormal eating habits.

The Bigger, the Better

Senior Hunter Meech worked at Georgia State’s Student Recreation Center and is passionate about fitness. He explained his struggle with dieting and the media’s effect on his self-image, as well as his experience of seeing his friends exhibit unhealthy habits.

“Bigorexia is a term I’m far too familiar with, and sadly, many men who lift weights struggle [with it] whether they know it or not,” he said. “Social media provides us with images that get ingrained into so many young men’s brains as the ideal physique, and it makes many envious to be that muscular.”

Men in fitness tend to follow a strict diet, with some examples being ketogenic diets, “If It Fits Your Macros” dieting and intermittent fasting. Meech followed the “If It Fits Your-Macros” diet and found himself engaging in disordered eating habits.

“You basically eat the calculated amount of proteins, carbs and fats your body needs for your goals,” he said. “This resulted in me becoming incredibly anxious about going over and eating too much. I [was] extremely lean but to a point where I looked emaciated, and it only continued to hinder my body image issues even more.”

Senior Freddie Ross, a former employee of the Recreation Center and a personal trainer, agrees that unrealistic body images in the fitness world contribute to people’s warped perception of their bodies. 

“In my opinion, eliminate ads that push the narrative of men needing to be 270 pounds of ripped, lean muscle to be adequate as a human,” Ross said. “[We should] have open, honest conversations about people and their relationship with food and exercise.”

Gotta Get Those Gains (the Right Way)

Intermittent fasting is one of the few diets that does not limit what someone eats, but when they eat. The most popular intermittent fasting method is the 16/8 method, where one eats for eight hours of the day and fasts for the other 16. During fasting periods,only consume water and zero-calorie drinks. 

However, studies suggest that restrictive diets like these can increase someone’s chances of developing binge eating disorder.

“I’ve known guys who have starved themselves for 16-20 hours and then tried to gorge themselves and eat an entire day’s worth of calories in less than eight hours,” Meech said. “Of course, this leads to even more eating disorders such as binge eating where guys will try to eat as much as they can in hopes of putting on as much muscle in a short period of time.”

Dan Benardot, a professor of nutrition at Georgia State, compares intermittent fasting to driving a car from Atlanta to Los Angeles: if a person is a car, then the calories consumed are the gas. He explained that you couldn’t overfill the tank before you leave Atlanta to satisfy the trip’s total fuel needs, nor can you let the tank go to empty and provide fuel once you get to Los Angeles to give the car what is needed for the trip. The car won’t make it.

“What happens with a lot of people who are physically active is they tend to backload their intake. They have a little breakfast, exercise, exercise, exercise. Then, they don’t eat very much. At the end of the day, they have a huge dinner to consume the fuel they actually needed earlier while they were exercising, compromising their goal of losing fat and gaining muscle,” he said. 

Maxing Out the Cycle

Like any other mental illness, the most effective way to overcome eating disorders is to seek help. But for some, that’s not an option, whether it be limited access to resources or not knowing they have a problem. But there are ways to slow the process. 

Ross asks open-ended questions to his clients interested in losing weight to ensure they are setting fitness goals for the right reasons.

“When I train people, and they tell me their goals, I always ask them, ‘Why?’” he said.

According to Benardot, the best and correct way to diet is to “never overfill the tank.” Consider researching factual, scientific journals about dieting and avoid baseless diet fads found on the internet. Benardot also mentioned that using weight to determine the validity of a diet is “misleading.”

“Part of the problem is that they think that the diet is successful because they say, ‘Oh look, my weight [has] gone down,’” he said. “Weight is the worst imaginable metric that you could think of because it’s misleading. What you really want to know is, ‘Is my fat going down? And am I keeping my muscle?’”

Creating a healthy relationship with food helped Meech conquer his struggles with eating.

“I find that the best thing that’s worked for me is to focus on eating healthy meals without focusing on the [number] of calories and the ratio of carbs and proteins,” Meech said. “Understand that unhealthy food isn’t evil and will not ruin your physique if you practice moderation and stay active.”