Male Bodybuilders and Disordered Eating

For decades, eating disorder research was very biased by gender, exploring almost exclusively how the conditions impacted females and disregarding any effect they may have on men. But as studies have expanded their scope in recent years, researchers are increasingly finding that eating disorders are not just a problem for women.

In fact, recent studies suggest that males represent as many as 1 in 4 cases of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. [1] And there are some subsets of men who may be even more at risk for developing disordered eating behaviors.

Bodybuilding is a popular form of exercise that has been gaining traction in recent years, particularly among men. But research shows that male bodybuilders face a greater risk of developing unhelpful thoughts about body fat, body weight, and body image, as well as abnormal eating behaviors. [2]

Body Image Perception, Eating Disorders and Male Bodybuilding

The relationship between body image perception, eating disorders, and bodybuilding is complex and multifaceted. Research has pointed to an interplay between the demands of the sport, the extreme behaviors needed to achieve or maintain them, and an increased sense of body image disturbance, even as bodybuilders approach or reach their goals. [2]

In the case of male bodybuilders, an intense focus on achieving a muscular and lean physique can distort their perception of an “ideal” body shape, as well as how they view their own body, particularly in comparison to that lofty ideal.

That many people within the bodybuilding community share these standards and ambitions can potentially create undue pressure to conform to these expectations. Indeed, when pursued competitively, the sport literally pits one body against another, which can create an even more heightened sense of self-awareness and male body dissatisfaction.

As such, extreme measures, such as restrictive diets or compulsive workouts, are not uncommon in competitive bodybuilding. And harmful stereotypes in the male bodybuilding culture can also contribute to the development of eating disorders and body dysmorphia in some individuals. [3]

Potential Eating Disorder Risk Factors of Bodybuilding

Research on eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders among males and male athletes is still nascent. But studies are already uncovering certain risk factors that may be heightened among these groups.

Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphia is an umbrella term for a number of conditions in which individuals become preoccupied with perceived physical flaws, whether or not they truly exist. [4] It has many subtypes, including the recently defined muscle dysmorphia, in which people perceive their body to be “puny,” weak, or not big or muscular enough, despite the reality of the situation.

Sometimes also called “bigorexia” or reverse anorexia, this condition is often marked by compulsive exercise routines or a fixation on gaining weight and muscle mass. And studies have shown that these mindsets are particularly prevalent among male bodybuilders. [2]

Emphasis on Certain Diets

Achieving or maintaining the particular body shape revered in bodybuilding requires extreme measures, including a focus not only on exercise but on diet. As such, many in the bodybuilding community adopt extreme dietary restrictions or exhibit an intense focus on nutritional information such as micro- and macronutrients.

These tendencies can also lead to distorted eating attitudes, with one study on the subject finding as many as 67.5% of male bodybuilder respondents showing clinical levels of eating pathology, whether or not they were involved in a bodybuilding competition. [2]

Exercise Addiction

Male bodybuilding is often linked to excessive exercise, driven by the need to build more muscle mass or the fear of failing to achieve desired physical goals.

Eventually, such a fixation can become pathological. Studies have linked excessive exercise not only with higher rates of body dissatisfaction but higher rates of obsessive-compulsive symptomatology, meaning people’s preoccupation with working out can become disruptive to the point where they must compulsively exercise in order to relieve those disruptive thoughts. [5]

Social Pressure and Comparisons

Social pressure within the male bodybuilding community can be immense, to the point where it negatively impacts someone’s physical and mental well-being. The expectation of achieving a particular body type can promote the adoption of unhealthy habits and fuel the development of eating disorders.

Constant comparisons between competitive bodybuilders can also negatively impact body satisfaction, and encourage people to fixate on areas of their body that were not judged as highly as they wanted, or as highly as someone else.

Bodybuilding vs. Disordered Behaviors

It can be difficult to determine whether someone involved in the bodybuilding scene is struggling with body dysmorphic disorder or an eating disorder.

The culture of the sport places a high premium on achieving specific body types and pursuing intensive eating and exercising behaviors. And the knowledge many bodybuilders have on anatomy and nutrition, coupled with their muscular physique, can make many people presume they’re practicing healthy habits.

But if someone is focused on diet, exercise, or body image to the point where it becomes disruptive to the rest of their life—if they exhibit signs of obsession or can’t feel “normal” without eating or working out in a particular way—it may be a sign of a deeper problem.

Body Building

Signs of Exercise Addiction, Body Dysmorphia, and Eating Disorders

While every person is different, there are a number of signs and symptoms that commonly point to a developing eating disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, or exercise addition, including: [6, 7, 8]

  • Avoiding mirrors or constantly checking oneself in the mirror
  • Constantly grooming oneself
  • Constant comparing oneself to others, or asking if one looks okay
  • Avoiding social activities, particularly those that involve showing off the body, such as going to the beach
  • Refusing to eat certain foods or entire groups of foods (e.g. no carbs)
  • Appearing uncomfortable to eat around others
  • Avoiding social situations that involve food
  • Withdrawal from friends or previously enjoyed activities
  • Skipping meals, eating only small portions, or exhibiting strange food rituals
  • Exercising despite injury, illness, or exhaustion
  • Missing out on previously enjoyed activities in order to exercise
  • Regularly exercising for longer or more intensely than originally intended

Bodybuilding can be a rewarding and athletic pursuit, but keeping a watchful eye on one’s diet and nutrition is crucial. The presence of these signs and symptoms may indicate that someone is struggling with disordered thoughts and behaviors.

Finding Help for an Eating Disorder

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, or exercise addition, it’s important to seek out help. These attitudes and behaviors are detrimental to one’s health, and can be potentially dangerous if left untreated.

Speaking with your primary care physician, therapist, dietician, or other trusted medical professional is a good place to start. These experts are often versed in many different types of disordered thoughts and behaviors and may be able to point you in the direction of a successful treatment center or program.

If you’d rather not have these sensitive conversations face-to-face, there are a number of eating disorder and mental health hotlines you can call. These services offer additional information and resources on eating disorders and potential treatments while allowing callers to remain anonymous.

But no matter where you look for help, the most important thing you can do is start. It can be difficult to tell when someone involved in the bodybuilding world crosses the line from competitive sport to unhealthy ideals, but ensuring that they have access to proper care and treatment can help them step back from that edge, and avoid experiencing the worse consequences of eating disorders.


    1. Gorrell S, & Murray SB. (2019). Eating Disorders in MalesChild and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America; 28(4):641–651.
    2. Devrim A, Bilgic P, & Hongu N. (2018). Is There Any Relationship Between Body Image Perception, Eating Disorders, and Muscle Dysmorphic Disorders in Male BodybuildersAmerican Journal of Men’s Health; 12(5):1746–1758.
    3. Ribeiro AS, Nunes JP, Schoenfeld BJ, Aguiar AF, & Cyrino ES. (2019). Effects of Different Dietary Energy Intake Following Resistance Training on Muscle Mass and Body Fat in Bodybuilders: A Pilot StudyJournal of Human Kinetics; 70:125–134.
    4. Mosley PE. (2009). Bigorexia: bodybuilding and muscle dysmorphiaEuropean Eating Disorders Review; 17(3):191–198.
    5. Gulker MG, Laskis TA, Kuba SA. (2010). Do excessive exercisers have a higher rate of obsessive-compulsive symptomatology? Psychology, Health & Medicine; 6(4):387-398.
    6. Body Dysmorphic DisorderJohns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed April 2023.
    7. Warning Signs and Symptoms. National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed April 2023.
    8. How to Identify an Exercise Addiction and Intervene(2018, September 18). Northwestern University. Accessed April 2023.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated on November 7th, 2023
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