Bodybuilding is a sport in which individuals use specific exercises to control and develop their musculature. Bodybuilders compete by appearing in lineups and performing pose routines in front of a group of judges, all of whom are trained to identify desirable (and undesirable) body shapes.
In other words, when you’re a bodybuilder, your performance is contingent on the way you look. It should come as no surprise, then, that bodybuilders often struggle with disordered eating.
Orthorexia: A common occurrence in bodybuilders
Orthorexia nervosa is a form of disordered eating shared by many bodybuilders. While both anorexia and bulimia involve restricting calories, people who struggle with orthorexia don’t starve themselves. Instead, they obsess over whether or not their food is “healthy enough.”
No one is saying that it’s bad to eat healthy foods. Individuals who struggle with orthorexia, however, become obsessive over their diet to the point where they isolate themselves from friends and family members, punish themselves for eating something “impure,” or choose to forgo food entirely if nothing healthy is available. Although orthorexia is not yet recognized as an eating disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, most clinicians recognize it as a form of disordered eating that — if left untreated — can severely impact a person’s quality of life.
Bodybuilders frequently develop this disorder, in part because certain food groups are believed to improve performance whereas other food groups are believed to harm performance. Some bodybuilders cut out carbohydrates entirely even though carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Others avoid sugar, fats and proteins, all of which are vital for remaining healthy.
Cutting out any food group entirely can be risky and may predispose a bodybuilder to overtraining.
What is overtraining?
Overtraining occurs when athletes undergo an intense training regimen from which they are unable to physically recover. Overtraining is associated with an increased risk of injuries and illness. Other symptoms of overtraining include decreased physical performance, fatigue, loss of motivation, low mood, loss of appetite and weight loss. Individuals who have overtrained may take weeks or even months to recover.
Sometimes, athletes simply overtrain when they push themselves harder than usual — e.g., lifting more weight than normal or failing to give themselves a break when their muscles ache. Other times, athletes overtrain when they perform their normal exercises, but with inadequate nutrition. For instance, athletes who completely remove carbohydrates from their diet don’t have enough cellular energy to repair their muscles and, therefore, get injured more frequently. Athletes who refuse to consume dietary fats are more likely to experience heart difficulties and free radical damage, both of which can make training more dangerous than usual.
Maintaining balance is essential
The difference between eating healthy and orthorexia nervosa is moderation. Eat plenty of veggies, but don’t refuse a slice of the birthday cake your family prepared for you. Have pasta every once in a while. Treat yourself to your favorite restaurant. The best way to remain healthy — and fit — is to trust your body and keep a balanced head.
Unfortunately, eating disorders are illnesses that can’t be solved by “thinking your way out of it.” If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or others, it’s important to seek professional help immediately.
Sovereign Health of California’s eating disorder program provides treatment for adult women suffering from eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Our clinicians apply both technology and counseling to investigate each patient’s neurological state as well as lifestyle issues that could be hampering a patient’s path to sobriety.We also include family members and friends in the recovery process, because we understand that people are people— not a disorder. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer
To read the next blog in the series go here: Eating disorders and athletes: Bulimia, body image and ballet
To read the previous blog in the series go here: Eating disorders among athletes: Long distance running