'Gym Bro' culture: Eating disorders repackaged


'Fitspiration' can create and perpetuate obsessive and disordered eating for everyone

Article Image

Image by Rikard Strömmer

By Henry Gee

I was looking through Instagram Reels recently (I don't like TikTok but am more than happy to watch the exact same content weeks later and reposted by someone else) and happened across a cooking tutorial by a very muscled man.

Yet, instead of just showing the ingredients, preparation time, and methods, he also talked about the number of calories and grams of protein per serving. The recipe was for four servings. Something with chicken. Ideal for meal prep and your macros, whatever that means.

I moved on, not thinking much of it, but then came across a similar video, with a similar looking man, that had a similar recipe, that was similarly suited to meal prep. It got me thinking – if they looked like they did, and cooked like that, and I looked like me, and cooked like I do; clearly, they knew something I didn’t. It seems ridiculous, but part of me began to feel angry and ashamed that I didn’t look like that.

Preparing food ahead of time is nothing new. For as long as there has been decent, reliable home refrigeration, there has been tupperware filled with cooked meats, vegetables, and stews; batch cooked food just waiting to be eaten. Even the idea of preparing entire meals ahead of time isn’t novel. People are always looking for ways to make home cooking easier and more affordable.

If you deliberately cook a lot of soup, and freeze most of it – that’s meal prep. If you make a sandwich to take with you to the library the next day – that’s meal prep. If you drink an entire bottle of whisky so you can be drunk the next day – that...that’s a problem...you should seek help for that. But the point is, having certain meals ready to go, for your convenience, just makes sense. Most of us do it without thinking.

However, the type of meal prepping that these ‘gym bro’ influencers are promoting is not this. It involves specifically portioning out most, if not all, of your week’s meals. Every food item is carefully weighed. The amount of protein, carbs, and number of calories, counted. If anything goes wrong, it could drastically alter and ruin your long-term goals. Meal prepping is important because it allows you to focus on what matters; lifting weights and trying to attain your ideal body. Less time eating, more time exercising. It’s what those muscled men online told you would help make you look like them.

The NHS website says that “spending a lot of time worrying about your weight and body shape”, “exercising too much”, and “having very strict habits or routines around food” are potential symptoms of an eating disorder. I think the similarities to the type of meal prepping and bodily aspirations ‘body builder' influencers promote are clear.

However, such practices are often not seen as promoting disordered eating because they are legitimised under the guise of fitness, self-improvement, and goal-oriented attainment. How can they be harmful if you get to look like this at the end? How can you have a problem when you’re working on yourself? How can you have an eating disorder when you’re gaining muscle?

There is also a feeling within certain gym cultures that it doesn’t matter what you do, the end physique is all that matters. Talking to The Guardian, an ex-body builder said that after taking steroids, and looking notably bigger, people within the gym had “more respect for [me]...I thought, heck yeah, I’m going to take more so I can get even bigger”. Although not specifically about the promotion of disordered eating practices, it belies a culture that prides itself on the pursuit of the superficial whilst overlooking unhealthy mental and physical attitudes.

On a quick side note, I really hate ‘gym bro’ influencers who admit to using steroids, either from the off, or those who get found out (*cough* ‘Liver King’ *cough*). Admitting that you need steroids to attain these body types doesn’t suddenly absolve you of anything. You’re still promoting an unobtainable body type, and you’re still feeding a toxic culture that is negatively affecting people’s physical and mental health.

Because eating disorders are still mostly associated with women, many of the men who experience them go unrecognised and undiagnosed. Simply put, a lot of the advice and understanding of symptoms doesn’t align with how most men experience them, further explaining their acceptance within ‘gym bro’ culture.

Whilst research into the experience of men with eating disorders is limited, it does suggest that the number of men experiencing symptoms is rising. Symptoms tended to exhibit as obsessive behaviours around calorie counting and the amount of protein in foods. Most men also experienced some form of muscle dysmorphia (the belief that their muscles are too small and therefore feel a compulsive need to make them larger). These mirror the meal prep practices promoted by ‘gym bro’ influencers, as well as the internalised inadequacies they embody.

Sadly, the people who are promoting these harmful practices don’t seem to care. They’re either simply saying what they were told, and they’ve inter- nalised any of the negative side-effects as merely part of the ‘rise and grind’ mentality; or they’re just parroting whatever trend they’ve seen online in the pursuit of relevancy and likes.

Frankly, I think social media companies should be doing more to regulate this kind of content. Inaction is not a neutral position. Guidelines need to be clearer. The longer they wait, the more men will get caught in a vicious cycle of positive affirmation for negative practices. It may seem trivial; it’s not for the people affected by it.