Cutting and bulking : are gym trends verging on disordered?

Messy explores the damaging impact of gym and diet trends.

Trigger warning : content on eating disorders 

‘What I eat in a day’ ‘calorie deficit diet’ and love island stars are lingering on for-you pages, promising that with the correct supplements, workout routines and pricey protein shakes we too can be ‘toned, tanned and beach body ready’ in a matter of what looks like, weeks.

As the summer season approaches, so does the amounting pressure to trim down and bulk up. 

According to UK Eating Disorder charity ‘Beat’, one quarter of people who suffer from eating disorders are men, but there are many more who are reluctant to come forward and receive help.

So under the façade of what we may deem healthy and desirable, when is what seems like an obsession with calorie intake and muscle gain, going too far?

Student and former bodybuilder Will’s story:

Will, (he/him) a student and bodybuilder from Nottingham, has competed in two shows with UKDFBA (UK drug free bodybuilding association). The training processes have included following a strict bulking and cutting diet, with the aim of getting as big as possible for show day.

When preparing for his second bodybuilding show, Will followed a diet plan set by his coach for seven months.

‘’I had pretty much the same food everyday, for seven months. Now I look back on that, thinking how did I do that?’’ says Will.

Will’s parents became more concerned when he became really strict with calorie intake, but being into exercise themselves, trusted that he was being safe and knew what he was doing. 

Afterall, he was eating ‘healthy’ food.

‘‘I don’t think it was disordered eating. Now I look back on it though, it seems disordered, but I never felt like it when I was there. I could have flipped out of it, but I just didn’t want to give up the goal” Will, 22, says.

‘’I think it’s a bit sad but I’ve been weighing out food for so long that I could just do it by eye now.’’

For seven months everything he ate was calculated perfectly, to 0.1 of a gram.

‘’When I came off a perfect diet, I thought, what am I doing here? You have to adjust and think that that optimal diet didn’t fit in with the rest of my life”, he says.

The moment he finished the competition, Will was able to finally go and have fast food with his family. 

Now, Will is taking part in online gym challenges like 75 hard, which includes training twice a day, everyday, for 75 days in a row. He admits that he does still put pressure on himself to maintain his body image.

However, he also plays rugby, football with his friends from home and has more freedom with his diet.

‘’I prefer it now, because everyday I feel fitter and I have a much better balance. I can vary the food I have. I eat pretty well but if I want to go out and have a meal with the boys, or my girlfriend or my family I can do it now. And I don’t feel bad about it”, he says.

Hear from bodybuilder and online coach, Jermaine:

Jermaine, from Sheffield, is a competing bodybuilder, online coach and personal trainer, who also follows a bulking and cutting diet. He admits his life really does revolve around his body appearance, and posts his journey online.

‘’My passion is to get people in the best shape of their lives, the factor in play is that it is a business and you have to treat it as one. If my body is my business, then so be it’’ he said.

Jermaine began going to the gym as a young teenager, fuelled by the need to prove his peers at school wrong.

‘‘I was an overweight kid, and being called fat at school motivated me to go to the gym. It might have started off as insecurity, but my god has it changed my life.’’ he says.

Jermaine met many of his close friends, and girlfriend through going to the gym but looking back on his experience, he says for many people including his younger self,  mentality plays a big role within exercise and body image.

‘’If you are exuding this self loathing because of how you look and feel, everything will be affected. When you have low self worth and low confidence, that level of insecurity, you start to develop other things and can get into the realm of eating disorders’’ says Jermaine, age 24.

Jermaine thinks that people are less likely to notice signs of disordered eating in men. 

‘’I definitely had some level of issues around eating, binge eating and disordered behaviour. Not being around people when eating and locking myself away so others couldn’t see me eating. I had that when I was young, from 14’’ he says.

The London Centre for Eating Disorders And Body Image have released there has been a shocking 128% increase in hospital admissions for boys and young men suffering with eating disorders since 2016.

Much of this is due to lack of early intervention, along with, according to Heathline, an increase in disordered behaviour such as binge eating, fasting and extreme exercise encouraged online.

Luckily for Jermaine, he came across a fitness forum online which offered healthy, reassuring gym advice. But even now in 2024, he says men aren’t talking openly about their issues, especially surrounding diet and fitness. 

‘’I think there is still very much the idea that a real man doesn’t have to bitch or moan, which I obviously think is wrong and disingenuous, Jermaine says.

‘’I think because of that image though, guys from all ages are going to struggle to say, ok I have a problem, and admit that. Or, for other guys around them to ask, are you good?

I can count on one hand how many times a guy has said to me, what’s going on? How do you feel? And even to some extent, girls asking guys if they are ok”, he says.

Hear from an expert:

Jenny Tomei battled eating disorder anorexia nervosa for ten years of her early adulthood, but says few people at her University picked up on the signs.

Now, as a nutritional therapist and eating disorder coach, she believes diets like bulking and cutting, within gym culture, can be dangerous.

‘’If I started cutting and bulking right now, it would only make me happy short term, it’s just not sustainable. You’re not meant to have a very low body fat percentage, it’s very unhealthy, but I myself have fallen guilty of that’’, she says.

She adds that there is a genetic factor, and while not everyone can get abs, most people are going to strive for something  completely unattainable.

Jenny Tomei outlines ‘red flags’ for men, signs that their relationship with food and over-exercise at the gym may be getting out of hand. These include:

  • Loss of testosterone, which means a low libido ( lack of sex drive)
  • No social life and being increasingly isolated
  • Avoiding eating with others 
  • Certain foods being off limits and a strict diet regime, including refusing to touch fast foods. 

‘’Disordered eating culture, obsessive exercise, can it lead to an eating disorder?  Yes. And if you’re also avoiding social settings where food and drink is involved and tracking everything on an app, it’s starting to look like a mild eating disorder’’, Jenny, 33, says. 

The danger is that our online influencer culture continues to normalise disordered eating, and if others have the same behaviour, they’re not going to bring it up as a concern.

So, the cycle can continue.

‘’Everything at the moment is all about our appearance. When things get more extreme, the gym taking over your life can lead to body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety and muscle dysmorphia”, says Jenny.

It is unrealistic to look perfect all year round, and she emphasises that your body fluctuates every single day. For some people achieving a lean body may be possible, but this doesn’t mean that it is healthy. 

If friends or family are struggling, you can’t force someone to recover, they have to want to work on their issues themselves, Jenny reminds us.

Eating disorders are a psychological condition, and can affect anyone, any gender, at any age, regardless of how you may appear from the outside.

So while bulking up and dramatic training programs may seem admirable from the outside, checking in with the men you know to see how they are really feeling, on the inside,  remains so important.

Where can you learn more and access support?

  • Eating disorder charity Beat runs POD, a peer support and online development programme, including workshops online. They have an anonymous helpline on 0808 801 0677

More information can be found : Overview – Eating disorders – NHS (

Read more articles on physical & mental wellbeing : Health SOS – Messy (