One of the most popular diet/exercise combos in the fitness community might do more harm than good, according to a new study. Particularly popular among weightlifters, it’s called “bulk and cut” dieting, and its goal is to get you jacked. The two-part regime involves eating a whole lot of food during phase one to bulk up, and then drastically reducing calories during phase two to cut excess fat while maintaining muscle mass. In other words, bulking and cutting means getting big, then paring down so you’re just muscle. But bulking and cutting can be dangerous for your health.
The bulk and cut diet is common among young adults — nearly half of men and one in five women and transgender individuals aged 16 to 30 reported having engaged in it in the past year, according to a new study. That study, published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, shows that bulking and cutting is also linked to disordered eating.
“Any engagement in ‘bulk and cut’ dieting in the past year was linked to a greater risk of eating disorder and muscle dysmorphia, or an obsessive concern with muscularity and leanness,” says lead author Kyle Ganson, Ph.D., an expert in eating disorders among boys and men and an assistant professor of social work at the University of Toronto.
For the study, researchers collected data from 2,762 Canadian participants between the ages of 16 and 30. The researchers asked them in an online survey, among other questions, whether they had engaged in “bulk and cut” dieting, and if so, how often in the past year. The researchers defined bulking and cutting as a “period of caloric overconsumption and caloric underconsumption.”
Ganson’s team found that the cisgender men and women who engaged in bulking and cutting were more likely to have an eating disorder than those who didn’t bulk and cut. The transgender participants who followed the diet were not more likely to have an eating disorder than the trans people who didn’t, and it’s unclear why. Ganson says not that everyone who engages in bulking and cutting will have an eating disorder, but engaging in the diet is likely an indication of often unattainable body image goals.
Bulking and cutting is not necessarily unhealthy in and of itself. But it may be a warning sign that a person is at greater risk of disordered eating. And some trainers advise against bulking and cutting, which seems to be more about looking muscular than actually enhancing athletic performance.
One athletic coach told BBC, for example, that he never recommends the diet because, for his players, “across the board this has been seen to have detrimental effects on athletic output. When a large amount of body weight is cut through drastic intervention, the effects on performance are very clear. Aerobic endurance, maximal oxygen uptake, and muscular strength generally fall after rapid body weight reduction, but can be increased with gradual weight loss.”
And there may be other negative effects on physical health. The idea of” bulking,” or eating a ton of calories to get big, means you’re more likely to store fat — because there’s no guarantee that you’ll lose all the fat you gained once you enter the cutting phase. That’s an issue because deposits of unhealthy fat can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Not to mention that the “cutting” portion of the diet means that, in some cases, you may not be getting enough calories, which can actually slow down your metabolism by putting your body into survival mode. Low-calorie dieting involved in cutting also increases production of the stress hormone cortisol and decreases testosterone production. And there’s no guarantee that people who engage in bulking and cutting are eating healthy, nutritious foods while doing so.
Ganson contends that social media plays a huge role in facilitating these sometimes problematic diet and exercise behaviors. A number of influencers and trainers on social media drive their followers to try bulking and cutting, often without ever consulting trained professionals. Algorithms feed this need. “If a young person is interested in gaining muscle mass, their feed is going to show them this narrative,” he says.
Parents have to be wary of engaging in these types of diets because their children are likely to mimic them, says Ganson. Parents who are constantly commenting on body image, whether it’s their own or that of others, can have an outsized impact on whether their children engage in these behaviors. “If dad is constantly weight training and engaged in rigorous dietary restrictions, a teenage boy may pick this up,” he says.
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