Gym bros are big on TikTok but some struggle with orthorexia

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No butter. No food after 6 p.m. Everything must be measured. Every macro recorded. “If you aren’t begging for rest, then you aren’t trying your best.” 

These are rules commonly promoted by gym bros today. 

They’re also tenets that read eerily similar to those posted in toxic corners of the internet in the early 2010s. Those accounts, which took over Tumblr and Pinterest, were banned and denounced for promoting disordered eating. But some say today’s gym bros are sharing similar content and hiding in plain sight − or maybe not even hiding at all.

On TikTok, many fitness fanatics amass followers by sharing their tough-to-achieve physiques and details of their gym journeys. But among the inspiring videos there’s no shortage of clips that promote “clean eating” to an extreme, skipping meals and over-exercising. Experts say this is contributing to a culture of orthorexia, a lesser-known eating disorder that’s quietly plaguing the fitness community.

What is a ‘gym bro’?

“Gym bros” are those who essentially live and breathe the gym. In some cases, their fitness goals can lead to unhealthy behaviors, a pitfall that’s been well-documented as of late.

Rather than aspiring for thigh gaps, men look to bodybuilders online for inspiration, sometimes resorting to dangerous methods to reach hard-to-achieve fitness goals. 

Unhealthy behaviors can include only eating “safe foods,” weighing food for weight loss or over-exercising to the point of injury

What is ‘orthorexia’?

Fitness and healthy eating has many positive benefits on physical and mental health, but when taken to an extreme, people often don’t realize they may be experiencing an under-discussed eating disorder called “orthorexia.”

Orthorexia is an obsession with clean, healthy eating that causes a person to experience guilt and shame if they stray from their rigid diet. Due to its restrictive nature, the disorder actually shares many of the same physical consequences as anorexia, including malnutrition, heart failure, inattentiveness, lowered sex hormones, kidney failure and even death.

Oftentimes, men may not have the information to understand that they’re experiencing an eating disorder, according to therapist and certified eating disorder specialist Sarah Davis.

“Wellness culture shows up in such a toxic way with orthorexia,” Davis says. “In gym bro culture, there’s a lot of that type of language with clean eating. Certain foods are demonized and it’s all about building muscle mass. It’s shown in this way where it’s put on a pedestal.”

Due to the underrepresentation of male eating disorders and cultural acceptance around these toxic behaviors, some men won’t seek help even when they do realize they have a problem.

Body dysmorphia and fitness culture

Health coach and personal trainer Noah Sage Zimmerman, 30, struggled with body dysmorphia for years before entering the profession.

Growing up in Santa Barbara, he was surrounded by “wealthy, good-looking families” and felt pressured to look and eat a certain way to fit in. In high school, he felt his friendships and relationships developed after he lost weight, which built a foundational belief that being fit was the key to being liked.

After college, he began to work with a dietician to address his ulcerative colitis, which is an inflammatory bowel disease. But Zimmerman began taking on bad eating habits under the guise of healthier living.

“I was supposed to eat extremely clean for 90% of the week, and then one meal a week, I got to eat whatever I wanted,” he says. “I just started to go to like, three to five different restaurants for that meal and just eat a disgusting amount of food in one sitting.”

Zimmerman was going to the gym for four to five hours a day to “feed” his eating habits and skipping out on lunch meetings, cocktail hours and networking events. 

“It wasn’t until three or four years ago that I was like, there’s a problem here,” he says. His relationship with food had become just as bad, if not worse, than during his teenage years.

While binge-eating and over-exercising, Zimmerman’s social life and mental health severely suffered. 

“I knew it was bad, because I was not only doing bad things to my body, I was also doing bad things to my brain by robbing myself of life experiences,” he says.

Now, he uses his platform to share safer ways to work toward a healthier lifestyle and speak out on body dysmorphia. But on his videos, toxic comments still flood in. “Stop complaining about standards and build the body you want,” one user wrote. “Body dysmorphia is a lack of mental intelligence, and a lack of mental discipline,” another replied. 

Zimmerman isn’t the only one to publicize his body dysmorphia. But on TikTok, some gym bros who post about body dysmorphia paint it as right of passage in the community. 

Steroids, Ozempic and viral transformation videos

What’s the best way to combat misinformation about gym culture? Zimmerman says for starters, it would help if celebrities and influencers disclosed their usage of steroids or weight-loss drugs like Ozempic. 

“A lot of young kids are seeing these people and potentially looking up to them,” he says. “I think we would not have as big of a problem if they were honest with how they achieve their bodies.”

Those viral weight transformation videos can be harmful too, experts say. A simple TikTok search of “trust the bulk ” will lead users to thousands of transformation videos, with many detailing how they earned a more toned body through binge/purge cycles and excessive exercise. 

When regular gym-goers don’t see these same results, body dysmorphia and disordered eating practices can worsen, according to Davis. 

‘We’re all overcompensating’ Why so many LGBTQ community members struggle with body dysmorphia

The pressure to be ‘big and strong’

Though women’s beauty standards prioritize smaller bodies, there’s still shame associated with being “too skinny.” But in gym bro culture, these excessive practices are reaffirmed by the body standards for men — there’s no such thing as being “too strong” for a man.

Eating disorder recovery advocate William Hornby says toxic masculinity and media play a crucial role in this mindset.

“Straight men especially tend to blame these beauty ideals on women’s expectations when that is really not true,” Hornby says. “It really (comes from) the performance of masculinity for other men.”

Zimmerman agrees: “At the end of the day, most people that recognize how ripped they are are just other men.”

From the superhero movies young men watch to the magazines they read, being “big and strong” is also equated with success, admiration and even “saving the world.” 

“Open up your phone, watch any type of movie, any type of TV show, you will see examples of unrealistic standards that people are being told to desire,” Zimmerman says. “You’re expecting like, ‘Now that I look a certain way, all these women are going to notice me, just like they do in the movies.’ And it’s not the case at all.”

Addressing the problem

Gym culture is incredibly competitive, and for many it can easily get out-of-hand. Accounts like Zimmerman and Hornby’s are gaining traction and helping combat some of these issues.

Davis says there are clear ways to know you have a problem, and spreading that message is key. If you’re missing out on social obligations due to your fitness goals, that’s a good indication things have gotten out-of-hand.

Any extreme measure a person is taking, whether through an eating disorder or in the gym, “isn’t in a pursuit of health,” Hornby says. “It’s in pursuit of an aesthetic. And aesthetics don’t qualify you as better equipped to handle an illness.”

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