Orthorexia, the socially acceptable eating disorder?

The fitness industry has become increasingly popular with social media tools like Instagram. Anyone can now connect with like-minded people anywhere in the world. Creating a tight knit community. As competing and bodybuilding become more popular, so is the social acceptance of dieting.

Anyone who has competed, or has any education in nutrition, knows that a “prep-diet” is not healthy. Let’s even forget prep for hot minute. If we even look at the plethora of fit tummy teas and smoothie bowls on the internet. We have created a community in which people are praised for their will power. Their ability to strictly restrict calories, turn down reward, and only eat the “heathiest” and “best” foods that society has to offer. This creates an outlet for people already prone to food issues. Because what was once considered negative behavior is now praised and rewarded.

I can personally attest that I have struggled with disordered eating for most of my life. And while working out can definitely teach you to appreciate food as a tool, there comes a point where you start obsessing about macros. Fats, carbs, protein cals. How many hours has it been since your last meal? Did you hit all your macros? Or worst, did you go over? And if you overdid carbs do you now need to do extra cardio? A second lift? It can be an anxiety ridden thought process that become obsessive.

The phenomenon of orthorexia is relatively new. It is characterized by an excessive preoccupation with eating supposedly healthy food. The term was introduced in 1997 by

Dr. Bratman, (M.D). He suggested that some people’s dietary restrictions intended to promote healthy lifestyles paradoxically lead to unhealthy consequences. This can result in social isolation (can’t go out guys, I’m on prep…), anxiety (macro obsession) and even the loss of the ability to eat in a natural, intuitive manner, such as listening to your hunger. I can not tell you the amount of times I would lie awake at night unable to sleep because of hunger pain. Or when you’re light headed and foggy, from strict low carb/cal diets, and someone offered you some sugar to spike your insulin. And of course, you protest. Severe cases or orthorexia result in malnutrition, or worst. I know a number of competitors or “fitness chicks” who have complained of hair loss, brittle nails, low iron, hormone issues…

It is not uncommon to come across women who share their stories of eating disorder turned fitness lover/bodybuilder. But is this a 180 lifestyle change, or just displaced anxiety in a socially acceptable manner? Do not get me wrong, I am by no means bashing dieting for a show. No one ever claimed body building is healthy (and if they are, they’re in denial). I have done it many times, and it was no walk in the part. A lot of sacrifice goes into competing. But it is also short term. Any coach who has you eating and living this way for extended periods of time does not have your best interest in mind.

The intent of this post is geared towards the average girl (or guy) who is an innocent bystander on social media, admiring these physiques and thinking that this is how they should be eating and living. Instagram is also a highlight reel. You are only seeing what people want you to see, and not what goes on behind closed doors. It is also my duty to society, or due diligence per say, to anyone out there who may find themselves in this trap. Even having distanced myself from the bodybuilding community (or at least competitively), I still find myself obsessing over everything I put into my body. The thought of going out for a meal or having a few drinks still gives me anxiety. Because I have no clue what I am putting into my body. The thought of eating something “bad” and not having some kind of guilt after is still something I am working on. And I continuously hold myself the standard or physique I know I’m capable of. As you also assume everyone else holds you to that standard as well. We all hear stories of how a woman “let herself go” after a show… or had a “sloppy” offseason. Which is far more common to hear about women than it is about men sadly.  Not because men don’t also put on weight. But because, for some reason, men increase in value with the addition of size (see how much size he’s put on? Dude, you’re huge), while women are expected to forever have a small waist, but still be thick in the right places? This is why I believe it is important to be able to self-identify our own issues, and motives.  You do you, for you.

 

Size versus strength and which is right for you

There are lot of reasons a person may choose to workout. For some it’s aesthetics, others it’s strength, and it can even be about mental health (among a bazillion other reasons).  Today, is not one of those warm, and fuzzy feelings post though. If we are looking at strength, the basic principle is about increasing force production. Aesthetics, usually equated with size (for the purpose of this post), is more about getting a “pump” and creating micro-tears to the muscle, which then causes it to repair and grow larger.  Strength is more about muscle recruitment.

It’s safe to say, based on current knowledge of anatomy and physiology, when training for strength it is best to keep the rep range low and the resistance load should be high. Also, true low-rep strength work is primarily neuromuscular. Meaning, it has a significant impact of your Central Nervous System (CNS). If you were to think of your body as computer/smartphone etc, strength training is more comparable to upgrading your software (IOS update anyone?), compared to the actual hardware (Iphone x). In other words, strength training is about teaching your CNS how to recruit more muscle, opposed to having larger muscles available for use. Sorry, my tech nerdiness is showing.

So, hopefully now that you understand strength a little more, let’s talk about hypertrophy. Unlike strength training, the goal of training for size is more physiological than it is neurological.  I’m talking bones, joints, ligaments, and those sexy, sexy muscles. You literally build your body (how cool is that)? This actually forces the tissues to develop and grow stronger. So, in this scenario the strength comes from an actual increase in mass opposed to recruitment.

So the next important thing to ask here, is which is more important? Hazahh… it’s a trick question! The answer is neither. It is all in fact, dependent on your goals. For physique athletes, like any other type of athlete, you can undoubtedly benefit from increased motor unit recruitment (strength training).  Since all types of training can have neurological benefits. However, if your training goal is to create maximum structural change, it is best to spend the predominant amount of training time in the hypertrophy range of 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps, which has historically been shown to be more directed at stimulating muscle growth

While it seems so simple. This is often a point of confusing for both new, and experience lifters. I fully admit, that at one point myself, I assumed the heavier I could lift, the bigger I would get. We have all seen that huge guy squatting every plate in the gym, benching with chains, and power curling. However, this is a fallacy (what a cruel joke). Bodybuilding is not about becoming a “weightlifter ” (Power, Olympic, or otherwise). It’s about using weights as a tool to recruit and increase your muscle size. So, while it is a great feat to impress (or scare off) women in the gym, it will not get you the “gainzzzz” you seek. And here is a little secret for the ego lifters out there. No one else in your gym cares how much you lift! Crazy, I know! But they are too busy looking at themselves than to care about you 😉

Ok. So now that we know a little more about how to, and how not to, become a bodybuilder. Let’s talk about actual weightlifting (the competitive kind). When you go “too heavy”, here’s what happens. You actually reduce the time under tension, because you’re forced to use momentum to move more weight (think bouncing the bar off your chest). Momentum does not build muscle. You’re also unable to lower the weight in a slow, controlled manner, further reducing your time under tension. Again, think when a powerlifter quickly descends, squatting into the whole and quickly driving back up. It’s about achieving that overall total.  You’re less focused on the muscles being worked (in fact, you’re recruiting a whole bunch of other stuff too) because your focus is to move the most weight. The basic take home is that you utilize more muscles, which reduces the accumulated “pump” in specific muscle group (squat = legs, bench= chest, deadlift=back etc. etc. etc.).  There is nothing wrong with this style of lifting either. In fact, it’s smart. If your overall goal is to move the MOST weight, then it’s the right way to go about. It’s all about the using the best means to an end.

It is also noteworthy, that if your goal is overall size, there is a time and a place for strength training. Increasing your overall strength can then be applied to volume down the road in future training. Conversely, occasional “spot training” or “accessory lifts” can be used to engage lagging parts. And in weightlifting, the sum truly is greater than the sum of the parts. But by bringing up your triceps, you can in turn increase your overall bench. Score! Cause common, who doesn’t want that, amiright?!

 

Happy lifting,

JP xox