1/2 Jenner St, Nundah, Queensland 4012

Gym Culture, Fad diets and Modern Masculinity

Request More Information

Request More Information

By providing your number you consent to receive marketing/promotional/notification messages from Your Fit. Opt-out anytime by replying STOP. Msg & Data rates may apply.

Have A Chat
Gym Culture, Fad diets and Modern Masculinity

I was recently approached by a colleague to answer the following questions for a journalist looking into teen male trends in dieting and exercise. I thought I would share my thoughts with you. Just a note as a side to the work I do in the fitness space I also work as a consultant dietitian in the Eating Disorder space. While I don't claim to have all the answers to every question, a lot of the following is both experience and evidence-based. Hope it helps:


What would the ideal diet be for teenage boys/young men (ages 14-24)? 

With such a broad age bracket, providing a specific 'ideal' is challenging. However, perhaps an appropriate way to answer might be to provide some points that are considered when assessing the nutritional adequacy of a diet. We first look at the body and what its measurements communicate to us it requires in nutrients. This can be as simple as weight and height or as complex as a body composition scan. We then look at biochemistry and what the blood is communicating to us. The third consideration is any relevant clinical diagnosis, medications, allergies, intolerances or dislikes, along with the frequency of urination and bowel movements. Finally, we assess the current intake alongside the environment in which the individual lives (work, school, living situation and, importantly, activity levels and when those activities are). As a teen, we are still expecting height growth and must ensure adequate nourishment throughout the day to provide that capability atop their basal metabolic rate and activity factors. Looking more specifically at food groups, we are always looking for a contribution of each across the diet, with cereals and grains making up the most significant energy contributor. Often appetite, thirst and the rate of perceived exertion are a good opportunity for more intuitive insight into whether the meal might be adequate at that particular time of day for the specific activity. For these reasons and the above factors, many of us as Dietitians are reluctant to say, 'this is a one size fits all meal plan'. 

Many teenage boys that get into weightlifting create a rigorous, regimented diet for themselves that is usually protein-heavy and not very varied (i.e., lots of plain rice, lots of chicken breast). Can you think of any possible adverse side effects from having such a simple, 'bland' diet at that age? 
Weightlifting in the right environment can provide a confidence-building opportunity for young men and women who enjoy the pursuit and can see progress and strength develop as they do. 

Unfortunately, when the aesthetic pursuit supersedes the performance of the weightlifter, we can see the eating patterns you have suggested arise. Interestingly the body can only metabolise 20-30g of Protein at a time which is where the regular blocks of rice, chicken and Broc come from in many of the influencer's stories. Any time we have such a heavy bias toward one particular meal, we lose out on the opportunity the multiple eating occasions provide. With only Broc as veg, we still need significant amounts of vitamins and minerals other vegetables offer us. With rice being the only carbohydrate source, we lose out on the impact of different fibre types on the microbiome. An intriguing area of research that suggests a wide variety of nutrients allows for higher quality outcomes (still early days on this research, plenty more to come). The protein-heavy bias will always be the ding-dong battle in this space. From a performance perspective, we see time and time again the improvement in individual output (growth, performance, recovery) when we liberalise carbohydrates in the diet. It's our best fuel source, and you will lift better, deliver more stimulus to the muscle and therefore get stronger faster with its use.
Overall, the negative of such a bias in the short term equates to micro-nutrient deficiencies (reduced immunity, prolonged recovery times between weightlifting sessions, and increases in injury risk). Unfortunately, if maintained in the eating disorder space, this 'strictness' is where we see the potential for disordered eating patterns to begin. Ultimately the behaviour has drifted from an interest into an obsession, and 'strictness' has become the way of life. Rigid food rules and uncompromising anti-social behaviours under cover of 'discipline and sacrifice' can become the norm. 

Calorie-counting and macro-nutrient counting are huge parts of gym culture now. So what are the possible consequences of monitoring your diet so closely for teenage boys and young men (socially, mentally, and physically)? 
Calorie counting turns what is inherently a normal human behaviour, satisfying our hunger, into a calculation—often teaching us to override our natural tendency to stop when satisfied and overeat or, in others, undereat. For some individuals, it presents no issues; however, it becomes a pass/ fail for others. The daily grind of being good enough to meet the calories and rhetoric like 'you need to eat to beat the old you' and versions of these cliches become the daily battleground of food and body. In its most extreme case, I have worked with young men who place such pressure on themselves to get 'the calories in'; they have reflux as they attempt to eat. It is a very grey area we work within; on the one hand, we applaud discipline and sacrifice and see these qualities aligned to resilience and as a body 'transforms,' the pats on the back reinforce those 'sacrifices' being made. On the other hand, as the sacrifices continue, that transformation is often never enough mentally for a young person trying to rationalise their place in the world. We quickly drift from what those around us view as healthy into a very unhealthy mental space. Worth is placed on external validation, and pursuing such can mean even more restriction or consumption, which also causes more social isolation because we need to do more to continue such 'progress'. Physically we also see the body start to respond negatively to further restrictions or increased loads, injuries, frustrations in the reduced pace, or perceived plateau are the result, and it's a vicious cycle of 'not enough. 

Many young men turn to fast food to reach their high daily calorie goals because it's quick and cheap. So what are the risks here?

As Health Professionals in our undergraduate years of study, the quality of health outcomes is heavily emphasised. When we take a quality view of the diet, I look at every eating occasion to proactively invest in an individual's health. When we react, whether out of convenience or for high-calorie gain or because we were unprepared, I see that as an opportunity missed to invest in the appropriate nourishment of that individual. The other thing I think we need to look at is the context here, if the takeaway meal is consumed as part of a normal diet in a social setting or as an option due to other factors (celebration, ritual, school/work events), then it's completely normal and ok. However, if its consumption is purely 'to get calories', often we're filling up on saturated fat, high salt, and high sugar foods that would be deemed low quality in terms of their impact on 'gaining strength'. 

Many teenage boys end up cooking their meals at home because of their stringent, self-implemented diets. Can you see any issues here? Should parents keep an eye on their child's diets, and what could this mean for the teenager socially if they're regularly eating alone?  

Welcome to the real battleground for parents, a tricky situation for them. The young man at 14 is craving independence and showing interest in their health but is suddenly 'too good to eat with us'. I see this often. As a practitioner, anytime a client/ patient shows a level of distress around sharing the eating experience with their family; it's a red flag. Research from as young as 2-3 supports families dining together leads to better health outcomes for everyone. It's tricky for mums and dads, who often feel like they're on eggshells and can't do much right. My question in sessions often relates to why? Why can't your meal be shared with the family? Why couldn't you take the time to cook for others if you are to cook for yourself? Often this is met with awkward silence, a silence many parents are used to. Sometimes this is a sign of progression when a meal can be shared but it may take some time. If I can encourage one thing, though, for those of you reading this, if you can prioritise the time to eat together as a family, everyone's health will benefit. I understand it's difficult and can't be an everyday thing as the fabric of the Australian family is a cluster of competing timetables but as much as you can, eat together! 

One man I spoke to used to follow the GOMAD rule when he was around 17 (gallons of milk a day - 4 litres of milk a day). This was a cheap way for him to gain calories and bulk for powerlifting. What do you think of this strategy?
It's so interesting you bring this up. In my undergraduate years, I did some research on this specific diet. One of the significant influencers in the 'from skinny to strong space' built a website around it, blogs, and FAQ's the whole shooting match. In one of the sections, called 'excuses'. The influencer's tone was aggressive, 'suck it up, 'if you want results, you need to push through, and 'just do it'. All this language is used aside from the common symptoms of diarrhea, reflux, acne and bloating. Look, I will try not to get on my high horse, but I've been in fitness for nearly 15 years now and helped hundreds of people become the strongest they have ever been; deadlift beyond double their body weight, squat to 1.5 times their body weight and bench beyond their expectation. To power lift correctly, you can't be fighting bloating, suffering from reflux and certainly not deadlifting heavy with any diarrhea lingering. Anytime your body communicates with symptoms like this, we need to listen to it; something we're doing, consuming or thinking is not aligned with our health. I am surprised the conversation is still maturing in this space, but it doesn't have to be an either-or discussion. You don't have to have negative health outcomes to get strong. It's the opposite. With a focus on enjoying the performance element and patience in the process, we can create the consistency required to get where we want to go and keep building from there! 

Yours in Health and Strength

Sean Cornish

Request Information Now!

Personal Training and Group Fitness near Nundah, Wavell Heights, and Clayfield

Let us e-mail you this Free Report