The Student News Site of Saratoga High School

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Gym bro culture normalizes disordered eating under the guise of self-improvement

Tara Natarajan

When I started going to the gym earlier this year, I had one goal: to get stronger. I was terribly out of shape (don’t ask me my mile time, because I can’t say it out loud). Naturally, more fitness content began popping up on my social media feed — not just about exercise, but about diet. And this is where I heard the terms “bulking” and “cutting” for the first time.

Put simply, bulking is the process of gaining muscle mass by eating in a caloric surplus, while cutting puts people in a caloric deficit (consuming fewer calories than they spend) to lose weight, especially fat. Oftentimes, caloric intake is based on complex factors including weight, age, sex and metabolism — for example, women typically need around 2,000 calories daily to maintain their weight compared to 2,500 for men. 

The bulk-cut cycle is most common in bodybuilding, where athletes attempt to achieve an ideal body recomposition by putting on immense muscle weight through bulking and then cutting to reduce their body fat percentage. Dwayne Johnson’s diet is the most well-known example of an extreme bulk, with six high protein meals a day letting him build his physique. It’s common to see football players bulking up in preparation for the season, or wrestlers cutting to make a lower weight class. 

A huge part of body recomposition is measuring macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates and fat. Many athletes even weigh their food to control their macros and hit a certain protein goal. Others simply “dirty bulk,” or eat whatever it takes to reach their caloric goals. Calories in, calories out sounds fairly simple. But I think the obsession with diet, especially in more casual gym culture, is highly problematic.

My perspective is primarily informed by the fact that I started going to the gym as part of my recovery from an eating disorder. When you have a poor relationship with food, it’s riskier to enter a space where an obsession with tracking numbers and calories is the norm. What I see in most online content (and even with some friends who go to the gym) mimics behaviors typically associated with restrictive eating disorders. 

Measuring out food by the milligram, eating the same items every day to maintain control, reducing cuisine to a series of numbers and trying to “burn off” any consumption are all behaviors considered disordered eating in medical circles.  I often see influencers say things like “food is fuel” or “earn that pizza” — I can’t emphasize how problematic it is to believe food must be “earned” through exercise. 

In the gym, adolescent males are particularly vulnerable to developing disordered eating habits, even if they’re bulking up. It’s a popular misconception that eating disorders are simply about losing weight; in reality, they stem from an obsessive desire for control. Diet culture and eating disorders are not new to women, but “gym bro” culture has normalized disordered eating in the pursuit of constant self-improvement. 

I’m not saying it’s always a bad thing to watch what you eat, or to try and hit a certain target when you’re working out. But I think there is a mental health aspect that is often ignored in these conversations: It’s easy to slip into compulsive behaviors whether it’s related to calories or reps.

Now that I’m trying to build some muscle, I’ve found more balanced ways to moderate my diet while avoiding getting caught back up in disordered eating behaviors. Rather than measuring out all my meals, I keep loose track of my protein intake and don’t restrict other macronutrients. When I meal-prep, I let myself try new recipes instead of relying on the same type of food for every day of the week. In short, I let myself enjoy food. 

And most importantly, I’ve stopped subscribing to online fitness influencers who promote disordered eating through body checks, “What I eat in a day” videos and garbage “motivational” content that simply encourages dietary obsessions. 

I believe there needs to be more research about the negative effects of gym culture on mental health, especially for adolescents. If there’s one thing I know from experience, it’s that no physique is worth the mental toll of disordered eating — whether it’s masculine musculature or a heroin-chic body type.

Donate to The Saratoga Falcon

Your donation will support the student journalists of Saratoga High School. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
Donate to The Saratoga Falcon