Eating Disorders in the Fitness Community

by Dani Taylor

I love the fitness community. I love seeing strong, ripped vegans chasing their dreams and changing their lives, along with the lives of countless animals. I love going on Instagram and looking at accounts that motivate me and hoping that I can motivate others as well. We all have those people that we look at for inspiration. “Dream Bodies”, tanned and glistening, are something many people look up to. And this is great, as long as you have the full picture, which isn’t always pretty.
There is a darker side to the bodybuilding industry and I’m not just talking about drug use in unnatural organizations. I am talking about disordered eating and body dysmorphia. You wouldn’t necessarily think so, eating disorders and distorted body image issues run RAMPANT though the fitness community. It is estimated that 42% of women who compete in aesthetic based sports display signs of disordered eating. This is most prevalent in aesthetic based sports like bodybuilding, figure and bikini, but is also common in other fitness communities, as well as the rest of the weight conscious world.
Binge eating is one of the most prevalent eating disorders in the world. Being on diets that are too restrictive is a recipe for a binge, and in order to be stage ready, you have to lean out beyond what is considered “normal” for your body. Extreme sports, like bodybuilding, for many people, mean extreme dieting. Extreme restriction can lead to binges, well, because you’re starving. ANd when you finally start eating, you can’t stop and can often eat an enormous amount of (usually very junky) food.. And you may feel guilty the next day, but your appetite may very well be rampant from over-indulging and the cycle begins again. Because food can have a drug like effect on the brain, this can all too easily become a very addictive behavior. Enough of this and someone will often be even further from their goal and feel even worse and restrict even harder to accomplish it. Etc. Etc.

Many people prepping for a show, may have a scheduled cheat meal once a week or so. And if done properly, it can be great for your mental health as well as to boost your metabolism. I say “if done properly”, because for many people that are dieting too hard, they start to LIVE for this cheat meal and it turns into an all out binge, followed by guilt, pain, sometimes purging, and another week of serious restricting, etc etc and you have a full out binge/restrict cycle, and that, my friends, is bulimia. Whether you throw up or not is irrelevant. Serious bingeing and restricting is bulimia, whether it’s a planned meal or not. And having been down this path personally when I was much younger, I take it VERY seriously, as it truly a terrible way to live. Eventually, bulimia kills approximately 10% of the people afflicted with it—equating to roughly 150,000 people per year.
Binge Cycle
How do you avoid this incredibly dangerous pitfall? Well, first and foremost, I would say that you have to know yourself very well before you even consider embarking on such an intense journey to the stage (or just to a desired physique). Know your limits. Make yourself aware of the red flags, and if you, or someone close to you, start to see them, be prepared to step back. Secondly, hire a knowledgable coach. You should have someone experienced on your side who can give you honest feedback, while monitoring your body and your diet. A good coach will help you increase your metabolic capacity BEFORE you start cutting for a contest, so that you are not eating an absurdly low number of calories come stage time. If you’re not starving, you are much less likely to binge. Now, don’t get me wrong—when you’re dieting, expect to be hungry sometimes. But being light-headed, dizzy, or weak is a sign that you are dieting too hard. Giving yourself enough time to get ready for the stage is also absolutely crucial. Who do you think will have an easier time cutting for a show? The person who has to lose 20 pounds in 18 weeks or 8 weeks? By aiming to lose no more than a pound to a pound and a half a week, you can work at a healthy deficit without needing to crash diet.

If your coach sets you up to have a cheat meal, plan it in advance so you don’t fly off the handle, but do not obsess over it. Obsessing over it all week is a red flag. Check yourself and talk to your coach about it if this starts to happen. If you have a good coach, they will likely set you up to have a refeed day as you get closer and closer to your competition (I.e: a lower and lower body fat). When dieting, certain hormone levels start to drop the leaner you get. This can slow your metabolism down to a halt, and incorporating a refeed day as necessary can help boost those hormones that you need and keep you feeling satisfied while continuing to cut.

Let’s talk about after the show. It is common and expected that you will go out and eat whatever you want as a celebratory and that is totally ok! The problem with this is when it snowballs into a full week or more of out of control eating. Obviously, since you’ve been cutting for some time, you’re body’s metabolism is no longer used to handling that much food, and it stores a LOT of it as fat. I have personally seen someone gain 32 pounds within 36 hours of competition. After you worked for months to get your body a certain way, seeing it all vanish in a day’s time is pretty much going to mess with anyone. To avoid this, make SURE you have a post show plan in place. After months of eating so meticulously, the structure of a plan can really help ease you back into a more normal style of eating without feeling like you’ve “let yourself go”.Increase your calories gradually post-show. Don’t measure absolutely everything. Ease out of the competition mindset gradually and you are far less likely to mentally and physically rebound.

Lastly, be realistic. The way your body looks on stage is not the way it is going to look most of the time. Very few people are able to maintain a “stage ready” look year round. Accept BEFORE you go into your show that you will gain some weight back after your show. That’s normal AND healthy! If you come out of your how properly, you CAN maintain lots of the progress you made getting ready for your show, but don’t be discouraged when your veins start to disappear and your abs start to retreat a bit. Your body needs food for fuel and to grow. Coming out of a show is a great time to set up some performance based goals for your off-season, or as I like to call it: improvement season. Set up a goal to squat a certain amount, or be able to pullups, or run a marathon. Once you remove your sights from how you look as a goal, you can focus on being able to push your body to do things it wasn’t capable of before!
Andreia Brazier
Andreia Brazier on stage and in off-season.
Even the pros body’s change significantly after a show.

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4 Responses to Eating Disorders in the Fitness Community

  1. Recovering Recoverer March 20, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    I’m not a bodybuilder, but I definitely have a penchant for fitness. I have been looking to transition to a vegan diet, but have avoided doing so because of my history with disordered eating ( A lot of the struggles you describe are similar to the ones I also feel.
    I want to have the strength to decide my desire to avoid harming animals is worth the risk. You have that and that honesty and strength are refreshing.

  2. Melissa Jane March 27, 2014 at 10:27 pm #

    This is the very reason I have chosen not to compete in any aesthetics contests. Whether if I’m competing or not, I want my body to be healthy all year round. I suppose this is me knowing myself and being aware of my limits – for me it would be all too easy to let the pursuit of beauty become more important than health. Even with a good coach I just don’t believe the ‘on/off stage’ back and forth would be a healthy thing for my body. Thank you for highlighting the seriousness of what can happen even in the “health” industry!!

  3. Ivan February 17, 2016 at 6:58 am #

    Extreme dieting is not good! Eat hlilthaey. Lots of fruits, vegetable, dense bread, wholegrains, protein etc. But you also need to do some exercise because1. It makes losing weight MUCH easier. Exercising burns calories.2. If you don’t exercise your muscles will slowly deteriorate and you’ll be weak3. Muscles use up lots of energy just to maintain so it’s good to have those while dieting.Just do some sit-ups, weights, push ups, and walk to places instead of being driven or catching public transport. Also riding bikes is good. Running isn’t the only way to get fit. Dancing and yoga can be fun as well.

  4. Karen McCoy January 28, 2017 at 11:38 pm #

    Hi Dani Taylor…can you please tell me where you got the stats of 42% of women in aesthetic sports display eating disorders? I am doing a research article on this very subject. Thank you very much!

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