The obsession with bigger muscles has been called 'reverse anorexia', and it’s disproportionately affecting young men
words Rhys Thomas
Arun Verma remembers a time when he was separating egg yolks from egg whites, discarding the nutritious (but fat-heavy) centres, and making a plain egg-white omelette. Maybe there’d be some lean turkey breast on the side. Precisely five cherry tomatoes and a weighed-out portion of spinach made up the rest of his solid-food diet. The remainder of the calories he’d allow himself each day came through powders.
“I discovered I needed about two grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight to gain muscle, and a calorie deficit to lose body fat. From there it became an obsession of trying to get the most protein from the minimal amount of calories.” Verma says. Verma was cutting out everything, even cups of tea because milk (known as a good source of protein) didn’t have the protein-to-calorie ratio he was looking for.
On top of the rigorous diet, Verma was working out daily, sometimes twice. A big weights session in the morning, and some cardio in the evening. Not that he had the energy to do so. “I was exhausted. In the morning I would have three black coffees followed by pre-workout, which also contains a load of caffeine. I would calorie count every bit of that, and then go to the gym and train with a shake of creatine, BCAA, whey protein and water”, he says.
Getting energy spikes from pre-workout, eating minimal calories and maximum protein, and manipulating his appearance to accentuate muscle mass by “wearing the tightest t-shirts and shaving arms”, did get results. To his mates, Arun seemed to have struck gold. He looked like a magazine cover and still had a social life: sinking pints, switching to the more calorie-friendly whisky later in the night seemed to be the only compromise. He looked good, he kept up appearances. It seemed he had cheated the system.
In reality, Arun Verma was experiencing and suffering from a form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder people are calling ‘bigorexia’. Bigorexia is a term for people who try to “redeem self-worth through excessive time at the gym and the use of performance-enhancing drugs and supplements”, says body dysmorphia therapist Adam Penkul. Essentially, it’s a fixation on trying to build muscle. Bigorexia doesn’t discriminate, but men are disproportionately affected.
As diet is a large part of fitness, “bigorexia can lead people to restrict their diet, but the concern is muscle mass as opposed to weight loss” says Brooke Sharp, a Clinical Advice Coordinator at eating disorder charity BEAT. Sharp also says that studies suggest men with muscle dysmorphia have more disordered eating patterns than men without muscle dysmorphia. This explains why Verma’s diet had also veered into orthorexic territory. Again, not yet an official term, orthorexia was coined in 1996 by Steven Bratman, a Californian doctor. He identified the behaviour as a “fixation on righteous eating.” Today it can be more generally applied to anyone counting calories and nutrients to an extent that it starts to affect their wellbeing.
Arun lived on as little as 847 calories (and never more than 1,000 calories) a day for about a year and a half – and the food was all geared toward consuming the maximum, optimum amount of protein. “I never went over 75g of protein in one serving, as I knew that was the lowest end of the maximum a body can digest in one go. Anything beyond that would have been dead protein, and a waste of calories.” Eventually, his body would reject a lot of food, he would be constantly exhausted, and hit a point where his quality of life was seriously impaired.
Magazines (along with social media) are full of unattainable, sometimes faked, aesthetics showcasing these potentially dangerous bodies, yet the veil of health managed to keep conditions like bigorexia from being seen as problematic for decades. The logic being, presumably, if someone is muscular they’re probably healthy.
These days these physiques, and the equally unnatural methods for achieving them, are more widespread than ever. Online you can learn how to cut fat, you can’t move for airbrushed looking (and sometimes actually airbrushed) bodies to aspire to, misinformation from untrained trainers is everywhere, and you can buy all sorts of supplements with a few clicks. As a result, more and more people are succumbing to these disorders, and it isn’t just the untrained that are at risk of damaging their health. On January 5 2021, a 29-year-old personal trainer from Colwyn Bay, north Wales died from an accidental caffeine overdose.
He had bought caffeine powder online, which is often used as a form of pre-workout (intended to allow you to perform better during a workout) but miscalculated the dosage. The 100g bag of powder should have been used for doses of 60-300mg (which is 0.06-0.3g), but the scales used only started recording weight at 2g, which means that even six times the maximum dose would have registered as 0g. At the time, the bag used did not come with a scoop.
While his death may have had nothing to do with bigorexia, it shows the risk of buying substances online and shows how supplements designed to give you an unnatural workout, are also, quite risky. Of the popular supplements, creatine is the most researched and referenced online.
Misinformation, particularly online where it can spread best, has given rise to all manner of fads. The ‘dry scooping’ trend, mainly on Tiktok, is just one example. This refers to people holding a bit of water in the back of their mouth, having a scoop of pre-workout, sloshing it around in their mouth by shaking their head, and then swallowing. The idea is the very concentrated solution will give you a bigger burst of energy than sipping a bottle gradually (think espresso versus americano). Often instead of successfully dry-scooping people take the ‘dry’ element literally, and spoon a load of powder into their mouths, only to then cough up the powder out like an exploding vacuum.
Luke Pratsides, a GP at Numan says “dry scooping properly isn’t particularly risky because it’s the same as people downing a pre-workout, which they often do. The risk is with people inhaling powder when they do it wrong.” According to Statista, 24 per cent of TikTok users in the UK were aged between 15 and 25 in late-2020. The New York Times has reported on people as young as 15 becoming fixated on their physique.
We can seen similar trends with age in the UK. A third of young British men say they need to change their appearance because of the "picture perfect culture" on social media. A survey of more than 2,000 people by health and fitness company Origym also found that it was affecting the mental health of one in 10 of them.
Brad Willis from Sunderland has been in the headlines since he was 17, when he won Mr Britain and Mr World bodybuilding contests. He started bodybuilding two years beforehand, at 15, which shows young men on both sides of the Atlantic are exposed to and influenced by these career paths and ways of looking from a young age.
Aaron Martin was also 15 when he started training. Like Arun, Aaron’s introduction to fitness was the people around him as opposed to social media. Rugby lads, mainly. Aaron would focus on rugby, eventually playing at a national level as a schoolboy, while watching videos from the likes of Steve Cook to help push his training further. When the rugby ended, Aaron fell into training, and still cites Steve Cook as an influence. “Even though he definitely was taking something at some point,” Aaron says.
Now, Aaron is a personal trainer with over 282.2K followers on TikTok and 83.5k on Instagram. Aaron has carved out a niche for guiding people’s training with a specific focus on responsible training and good form. His constant message to the audience is to train well and results will come. “I tell people I look like this because I’ve trained for ten years, but they often expect a quick fix because other influencers sell it. The fitness industry hasn't got legislation” Aaron says,
Despite his healthy approach to fitness, he’s still aware of the pressures of looking as good as possible. “There's definitely pressure, and people take you more seriously if you look great, it’s a fact. It’s like being a financial advisor and being broke otherwise”, he says. For many of his followers, looking good means big muscle mass.
While thinking about the need to look good, Aaron too found himself scrutinising his appearance in the mirror, but recognised this wasn’t a good behaviour to adopt. “I stopped looking in the mirror. I got rid of the mirrors. What I always say now is that body image is only ever a byproduct of performance.” He says.
A mirror is often a triggering point for people’s self-esteem where dysmorphia is concerned. But there’s also social media, which is a mirror and mirage in one. A visible and unattainable standard; placed just a click away from your own reflection. Penkul says “Social media can reinforce and validate the importance of superficial self-evaluation. It is another opportunity to compare and sustain unhealthy standards.”
“I got called 5’3 on TikTok the other day,” Aaron says. He’s 6’2. He says the toxic exaggeration can be found on both sides of the video. “People online who look massive from an angle, after lifting weights and wetting themselves with water, can be tiny in reality (I’ve seen them).” He says.
But for the people experiencing dysmorphia, “sucking in, and there was nothing to suck in, wearing tops that actually cut into me a bit just so my veins would always be bulging” as Arun recalls experiencing, it can all be very real.
“These ‘health trends’ have been rising in recent decades but are still newly emerging, which factors into why research around diagnoses and long-term effects is so underfunded and under-researched,” says Sharp. Nonetheless, issues for individuals can arise quickly.
“Recognising bigorexia is often difficult for the person experiencing it,” Sharp says, “it's often loved ones who recognise it before the person recognises it themselves.
Penkel says: “Preoccupation with appearance is a key sign. Along with checking in the mirror, asking for reassurance from others, and comparing yourself to someone else.”
Help can fortunately be found, Arun’s friend made him see his problem head-on, which (along with his body rejecting foods) prompted him to learn a new way of being. “Breaking the cycle involves recognising the emotions and finding new healthy ways to take care of ourselves,” Penkel says.
Arun still uses the gym two or three times a week, because he enjoys it. He also likes to have a high protein diet, but he’s no longer counting calories, and he’s comfortable with indulging. In his words: “I realised I can still have a great life. I can eat what I want and I can still look good if I train a little around it. I don't need to be as into it as I was.”
Arun also concedes that he knows something’s not right with his health. “I haven't felt 100% in maybe two or three years now. I’m always extra tired, my stomach is often in agony.” He says. But he hasn’t been to the doctors. The damage that bigorexia has caused, is a scary prospect.