“I can’t eat that because I’m currently training.”
“Cutting season begins today! Looks like I won’t be having carbs for the next 6 weeks.”
“I’ll just meet you guys out after you grab dinner. I’ve got to stick to this meal plan if I want to step on stage in 2 weeks.”
Raise your hand if you’ve heard one or all of these statements before (both of my hands are raised). And the thing is, it’s become SO socially acceptable to use any of these excuses (among many, many others) in order to avoid or restrict certain foods.
When we pair restriction with socially acceptable causes, such as sports, then restriction itself actually becomes more acceptable. So then the question is raised: what comes first, the eating disorder or fitness/bodybuilding? Or can we reasonably even associate an eating disorder with this type of lifestyle?
To a certain extent, it definitely appears that any bodybuilder has developed eating disordered behaviors. To name a few:
Clock-focused, and solely to make sure their next meal is eaten on the dot every 2-3 hours. This is such a huge similarity between body building and anorexia. As the eating disorder progresses, an eating schedule becomes more and more fixated. Breakfast HAS to be at 8:00 am, and lunch must be 4 hours later at 12:00 pm. Eating past 8:00 pm is out of the question. Bodybuilding tends to have this same mentality where a day’s schedule is dictated by when the next meal is.
I don’t want to generalize or seem like I am making the assumption that every bodybuilder isolates due to unsociability. Isolation is directly paired with the nature of the bodybuilder diet. When you are on a specific routine and food-focused time schedule, it makes it pretty difficult to go out with friends. What happens when you’re hungry at 12 am and cannot order anything off the menu that fits within your diet? It becomes easier to avoid this challenge all together. The same can be said for anorexia: going out becomes less and less desirable because food is a part of almost every single social situation.
Body image focused
When it’s actually your “job” to master a certain physique, you’re pretty much required to be at least a little focused on what your body looks like. Additionally, it’s not realistic to have a “competition-ready” body throughout the year. It is both physically and emotionally not sustainable. So when the competition is over, and the excessive spray tan wears off, your body cannot meet what you were demanding of it for the past 6 months of competition prep. This ultimately leads to a distorted body image, followed by the need to “uphold” the competition standards you held for yourself.
Food content focused
There is an overwhelming emphasis on what is in your food, and how its contents may possibly impact your body composition. Nutrition labels become something we quickly obsess over, having to read each of ingredient within the food to help us decide whether or not this food is “allowed.” The same goes for anorexia, where calorie counts for every single food quickly become stored as a permanent file in our minds that we can refer back to instantly when making a decision of what (or what not) to eat.
It might come as a surprise that an individual diagnosed with anorexia may also experience binging behaviors. It may be equally surprising that a bodybuilder or fitness competitor may deal with a great deal of overeating. In both cases, there is a physiological component that is impacting one’s ability to actually stop eating. After so many weeks or months of extreme restriction, your brain literally believes you are in starvation mode. So when you finally eat something of substance, it becomes an all-or-nothing situation where you feel the need to eat every single last bite, even past the point of fullness. I’ve met a few girls throughout recovery who actually binged their way to a healthy maintenance. Likewise, “cheat meals” for bodybuilders can turn into full on days of binging.
The difference between clinically diagnosed anorexia and fitness training or bodybuilding may be the feelings or thoughts associated with these behaviors. I cannot claim that every single bodybuilder feels a sense of guilt or shame that lasts for the rest of the day (or the week) after eating something that doesn’t fit within their meal plan. Speaking on my own behalf throughout recovery, these feelings of discomfort lasted at a minimum of 3 days.
Speaking again from my own experience, towards the end of my recovery when I was not in fact as recovered as I claimed to be, I decided to start weightlifting and even considering competing. Today, I still weight train, and love it. Today, I no longer want to compete. The reasoning behind this want of mine was to continue restricting my food for a reason that didn’t identify me as an anorexic. If I competed, it meant I HAD to eat in a very specific way, which happened to be a very safe way that my anorexia approved of.
I’ve noticed this becoming a trend in the recovery world. Check out any Instagram recovery account and more than likely, fitness is in some way associated. Instagram itself is home to hundreds of fitness and “clean-eating” focused accounts, all accessible at the fingertips of anyone in recovery for anorexia. So it’s no wonder that girls feel pressured to adhere to what they see on Instagram, especially when these fitness models are receiving such positive feedback for their seemingly impossible physiques.
The result of this in some cases is girls in recovery turning to fitness as way to maintain a more acceptable form of an eating disorder. And it makes it so easy to. Fitness training requires you to eat a specific diet if you want to see any noticeable results. It can also become easy to claim that you’re using fitness as a way to promote health and weight gain, while really it keeps you stuck in a restrictive eating pattern. When I first told my parents I was going to begin working out, it did in fact help me gain the extra weight needed towards the last few months of recovery. That being said, it was calculated weight gain and I felt more out of control than in control.
I encourage working out and I most definitely encourage weight lifting- I would be hypocritical if I didn’t. However, I even more so encourage having an honest conversation with yourself regarding the purpose that working out serves you, and what role you truly want fitness to play in your life. Working out can most certainly become a part of your life, but it doesn’t need to constitute it entirely.