Extreme Dieting: 6 Pack Abs At Any Cost

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The pursuit of body leanness can be a double-sided sword. Learn about the eating disorder orthorexia nervosa, and how it can lead you down an unhealthy path.

Lately, it seems there’s a very unsettling trend within the fitness industry. Many folks are so concerned with the pursuit of a coveted 6 pack that they lose sight of every other aspect regarding their health and wellness.

This subtle but controversial shift has individuals dieting on extremely restricted calories, ignoring signals from their own bodies, and destroying any potential for performance enhancement.

I think much of this stems from our culture’s ideology and the obsession with aesthetics that is promoted by the mass media. We idolize being lean because most seem to correlate it with a rating of overall fitness and general health. However, I think this idea is rather foolish and misconceived. Let me explain…

My Story

My start in strength and conditioning was quite unlike most other professionals in this field. Growing up, I was a skilled multi-sport athlete throughout high school. Upon entering college, my life changed dramatically.

During my sophomore year, I began taking some of the core requirements for exercise science which included a general nutrition class. Unfortunately, much of the information in this class was rather antiquated and not pertinent to the athletic population.

Given my type-A personality and strong work ethic, I began to try and implement every “rule” of nutrition that was provided within the course. You name it, I was doing it – no sugar, low fat, no red meat, low carb, no saturated fat, and of course protein was the only important macronutrient in my mind.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I developed an eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa; a condition revolving around the fear of “clean” and “unclean” foods. Essentially. I had managed to reduce my intake to roughly 1000 calories per day. As a result, my bodyweight fell to 130lbs at a height of 6’3″. My kidneys began to shut down, and my liver enzymes, creatinine, and BUN skyrocketed.

After about 6 months of no energy, constantly being cold, and feeling the need to take naps after 10 hours of sleep, I concluded that what I saw in the mirror was not worth all of the “rules” I was putting upon myself.

Most folks assume that only females struggle with eating issues; however, there is quite a large portion of the male population who encounter food issues on a daily basis.

Restricted Calorie Diet

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I developed an eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa; a condition revolving around the fear of “clean” and “unclean” foods.

Eating Disorders and The Pursuit of Perfection

So why the switch? What caused this transition away from health and muscularity to leanness and vascularity?

Well for starters, it’s important to understand eating disorders and why people feel the need to neurotically control their caloric intake. Eating disorders are never about food.

Food can be used as a means of comfort, control, celebration, or enjoyment. For those who struggle with eating issues, food is just a coping mechanism which they utilize to overcome insecurities in other areas of their life.

For me, many of my issues stemmed from a lack of self-confidence and the desire to attain perfection. In the end, food just became a means to an end in my mind; my actions reaffirmed the fact that I valued being lean over my own personal health. The body image that I envisioned in my mind was shaped by steroid-using bodybuilders, genetically gifted fitness models, and various photoshopped bodies strewn across mass media.

If there is one thing I learned from my own struggles, it’s the fact that there are no absolutes in fitness. Too often, you see articles titled something along the lines of: “You MUST eat X,Y, or Z foods in order to reach your goals.” Or even better yet, there are some which are merely based upon fear mongering and anecdotal evidence in order to sway the audience’s opinion.

I’m certainly not downplaying the role of nutrition or saying that it’s not important to reach one’s goals. On the contrary, I think it’s the missing piece of the puzzle for many who aren’t seeing results, whether it be muscle gain or fat loss. However, the point that I really want to emphasize is that fitness and health is all about balance.

What Does it Mean to be “Fit”?

Fit Bodied MaleNot everything is black and white; there is always a shade of grey. But many people want specific, hard guidelines to follow. Maybe you feel better on high carb, or perhaps you perform even better with a high fat diet. Is one better than another? No, each is entirely based upon context. Each and every individual has different genetics, personal preferences, lifestyle factors, and metabolic demands which all require specialization.

I think sometimes we’re a culture so heavily focused on science that we forget about one of the most important variables in the equation of health: only you know your body best – do what makes you feel best and perform at your highest. You will always be able to find a study to disprove or support your opinion, but in the end, the only important factor is what works for you.

Everyone has different goals: some want to squat a MAC truck or attain single digit body fat, but many just exercise in order to maintain good health and promote longevity. Whatever your goal, it’s important to remember that the end result should be to improve your life both in and out of the gym.

Performance, health, and aesthetic goals can all be combined, but if they ruin your social life, trash your hormones, or destroy quality relationships, are they really worth it? Society has created this ideal body that everyone “should” desire, but in all honesty, is that really healthy? Is there even a perfect body?

Not everyone wants to looks like a bodybuilder, eat like a powerlifter, or train like an athlete. Everyone has different standards, and as professionals in this field, we need to be receptive towards individualization.

Understanding Goal Setting

This current obsession with leanness seems to have created quite a number of pitfalls. Recently, I’ve seen many individuals focusing on heavy caloric restriction when it may be counterproductive to health, performance, or body composition. If you take nothing else away from this article, just remember: goals shouldn’t always be based upon specific numbers; sometimes you need to listen to signals from your body rather than what the scale says. Numbers mean nothing if your health is in jeopardy.

Scale weight can be manipulated by simple factors such as macronutrient composition, sodium intake, or even meal timing; as such, the number is rather transient and doesn’t represent your current health. Patience, consistency, and hard work can all drastically impact your physique without having to worry about the number.

Instead, I think it would be rather beneficial if folks shifted their goals to a more performance oriented mindset. For example, many guys want to deadlift twice their bodyweight or woman desire to perform bodyweight chinups and pushups. When you switch your focus from arbitrary numbers to performance factors, it’s easier to prioritize what’s truly important for long term health and development.

It’s time to reassess what is truly important and determine whether your numerical goals are ideal for longevity and performance. If not, maybe it’s time to change your mindset and learn from my mistakes.