Are all fitness competitors suffering from eating disorders? 

It seems to me that every fitness, figure or bikini competitor out there says she has either struggled with an eating disorder before adopting a healthy lifestyle or developed an eating disorder because of her addiction to body perfection.

In the first scenario, the “saved by fitness” competitor’s bio. might read, “Hey, I was anorexic and now I’m not anorexic because I started following a fitness lifestyle.  Strong is the new Skinny!”

Of course, there is also the competitor who feels that once she started competing she soon developed an eating disorder or her previous condition was made worse by being part of the fitness competition world. This fitness personality might proclaim that competing in fitness, figure or bikini is a bad choice for any woman because anorexia or bulimia will, without a doubt, be the result.

In a recent Facebook Live, I dived deeply into the parallels between eating disorders and competing.  You can find the full video on my TRAIN LIKE A DIVA Facebook page.

This blog and the infographic below is a brief overview.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder and the Fitness Competitor

If you are perpetually obsessed with a perceived imperfection of your body you may have Body Dysmorphic Disorder.  According to Mayo Clinic Website, the definition of BDD is defined as follows:

 “Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not observable.” (read more here…)

BDD is relatively common in Anorexia nervosa.  In this psychological condition, the patient has an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception her own body.  She places a high value on her weight and body shape.

Now, let’s consider what happens in preparing for a figure or bikini competition

The goal of competition prep is to control your body shape, weight and body fat to meet a visual standard.  Some competitors go to extreme measures to reach this goal.

Sounds similar.  Doesn’t it?

And, what happens after a competition?  If you don’t win you ask the judges to give you “feedback” aka you want them to tell you what was wrong with the physical appearance of your body.

BDD can be present in Anorexia as well as in body building.  But, are they absolutely related?  Does preparing for a competition cause an eating disorder?

If you are well prepared both physically and mentally, the answer is: No.

But, before we get to that, let’s compare competition prep and some of the most common eating disorders to see how they relate.

Eating DisordersvsCompetition Prep

Clearly, there are some parallels between eating disorders and competition prep. Does this mean that you absolutely will have an eating disorder if you become a competitor?

It doesn’t.

Consistency, Balance, and Managing Expectations

Bulking and Cutting:  It doesn’t mean what you think it means.

I think one of the biggest reasons that eating disorders become a problem for fitness competitors is the all-or-nothing mindset related to “bulking and cutting”.

  • The term bulking is meant to mean building muscle in the off-season by training for muscle growth and eating for both physical performance and hypertrophy.
  • Cutting refers to systematically changing your training and slowly lowering your calories to create enough of a deficit to lose body fat before stage time.

However, the unfortunate translation provided by much of social media and some bro-science coaches gives us a picture of bulking as unabashed over-eating in the off-season and cutting as starvation before a competition. This, in itself, looks like a prolonged binging and purging cycle.

As you can see the binge-starvation, yo-yo diet plan of many aspiring fitness competitors can easily lead to a disordered eating mindset.

Smart Preparation is a Better Strategy

Instead, I suggest that you focus on these three factors:

  1.  Consistency:  Aim for a consistent diet of whole foods that contains all of the macronutrients:  carbohydrate, protein, and fat.  Don’t completely eliminate any macro. group even in your pre-competition, leaning out phase.  Just this one step will help you to avoid big swings in weight during your training phases. If you don’t gain high amounts of excess fat you won’t have as much to cut.  Pre-competition will feel much easier.
  2. Balance:  Enjoying occasional high fat and high sugar foods throughout your off-season make eliminating them in your leaning out phase easier.  “Bulking” is often portrayed as all pancakes, sausage, sundaes and super-sized sized everything as a consistent part of your diet.  By contrast, the leaning out phase is the elimination of every last one of these foods.  Balancing your diet and making it more flexible will lead to a much easier and enjoyable competition experience.
  3. Managing Expectations:  Believe me.  If you follow an extreme protocol and then fail to place at your show, the devastation can send you into a mental tailspin.  Understand that physique sports are subjective.  If your goal is to personally improve from one show to the next while maintaining your health, you won’t be as disappointed if you don’t win.

Allow your body to change over time.  Understand the role of performance nutrition in your competition preparation and keep moderation and flexibility in mind.  And, remember, you are stepping on stage as a model of health and fitness.  Choose your preparation plan with these goals in mind and falling prey to the psychology of an eating disorder will be much less likely.

Good luck!