Question: A friend recently entered a bodybuilding competition. I was shocked by her diet before the event. She was restricted to eating chicken and the odd protein bar. How would this a¬ffect someone’s mood, health and fertility? This crazy dietary behaviour, especially when condoned by nutritionists/personal trainers at a well-known gym, must fuel disordered eating.
Answer: Ask bodybuilders about their lifestyle and they’ll invariably say they have a healthy, disciplined diet and training regime that ensures they’re in peak condition. In contrast, a study published in Qualitative Health Research this year concluded the bodybuilding community has a fanatical obsession with building muscle, which means when it comes to achieving this goal, there are few health costs considered too severe. So, what do bodybuilders eat in their quest to build muscle and lose body fat? In the bulking or muscle-building phase, a high level of energy is needed to fuel a heavy training regime and increase muscle mass. Typically, a low-carbohydrate, very high-protein diet is adopted, with between five and seven meals of predominantly lean meat, fish, egg whites, green vegetables, small portions of rice or kumara, protein bars/shakes and dietary supplements.
Although some of these foods provide important nutrients, the proportions of protein and carbohydrates often don’t meet dietary recommendations for long-term health. Bodybuilders also tend to consume a limited range of foods, says Claire Turnbull, a UK-trained dietitian and personal trainer, such as eating only chicken and broccoli six times a day for several weeks. “They don’t vary their vegetables; they believe broccoli is the best vegetable, therefore they only eat broccoli.” In the weeks before a competition, the focus is on cutting or losing body fat, so food and energy intake is severely restricted. Dehydration and severe carbohydrate restriction in the last day or two pre-competition further reduces weight. These periods of semi-starvation can lead to striking behavioural changes. Turnbull had a bodybuilding flatmate who would “accuse me of stealing food, was argumentative, crazy, detached; how he was safe to drive a car I don’t know”.
After these extended periods of food restriction, it’s not uncommon for bodybuilders to binge for weeks afterwards, before reverting to a strict diet in preparation for their next competition. This eating cycle sets up a disordered dysfunctional relationship with food, says Turnbull, and makes maintaining a healthy body weight long-term extremely difficult. Unhealthy eating practices are common in sports and activities that require low body weight or body-fat levels. A 2009 study in the journal Eating Disorders found female bodybuilders had high rates of weight and shape preoccupation, body dissatisfaction, bulimic practices and anabolic steroid use. It’s unclear whether women with disordered eating gravitate towards bodybuilding or whether bodybuilding cultivates disordered eating and bulimia nervosa – which is characterised by episodes of uncontrolled binge eating and inappropriate compensatory behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, dieting or fasting.
Male bodybuilders also have disproportionately higher rates of bulimia and disordered eating,
revealed a 2006 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. “If you’re severely restricting your nutritional intake, you have a dysfunctional relationship with food, and you have an abnormally low body-fat level where your periods stop and you’ve got dysregulation with your menstrual cycle, that is logically not a healthy way to respect your body,” says Turnbull. Athletes competing in sports that emphasise thinness or a specific weight are much more likely to report menstrual dysfunction, according to a 2005 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Turnbull has previously counselled bodybuilders on healthier ways to achieve their goals. But when competition dates loomed, they would invariably revert to extreme dietary behaviours to lose body fat. She now refuses to accept bodybuilders as clients. “I would be potentially endorsing a disordered relationship with food.” Many qualified dietitians and nutritionists take a similar view; but remember anyone can adopt the title of nutritionist, whether they’re qualified or not, and these people won’t necessarily provide science-based, ethical nutrition advice.
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