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From Cold Turkey to Manorexia

Going "cold turkey" means ditching bad habits for a healthier lifestyle, but what if your addiction is achieving the perfect physique?

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By Akil Wingate

05/28/14

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Cold Turkey is what my father referred to as jumping the gap from a habit that rules your life into a new life without a parachute. He quit cigarettes. Some friends and distant relatives quit drinking. Some old clubbing acquaintances quit pills. They all did it without counseling, without any sort of medical aids, without blinking an eye. For my part I've seen what can be engendered from the whole cold turkey phenomenon. 

Manorexia refers to the eating disorder of anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia nervosa as it occurs in men. It’s never been an official medical term, but in 2006 the media latched on to it to refer to the ongoing battle men have with their body image and eating disorders. It is all about image control - the never-ending battle men have with their body image and the eating disorders that ensue.

Never heard of it? Neither has a huge percentage of the internet savvy population. Professor Alison Field of Boston Children’s Hospital published a study in last November's JAMA Pediatrics medical journal that says one in three young men have suffered from the disorder. Some take to abusing street drugs known for their purging effects. Others work out endlessly in the gym in hopes of achieving the same physique as their idols. 

According to The National Eating Disorders Collaboration, here are the warning signs:

  1.  Obsession with bodybuilding and weight-lifting; even lifting when injured
  2.  Adrenal fatigue brought on by over training
  3.  Low testosterone
  4.  Disinterest in intimacy and/or sex
  5.  Use of anabolic steroids, cutting aids, diuretics, and pre-workout energy supplements

I have had all of these symptoms. I was a waif of a young man in my mid 20's, six feet tall and 150 pounds. For my body type, I had been used to carrying several pounds of muscle. But quitting one addiction cold turkey led to manorexia. It's not unheard of. In fact look at pop star Aaron Carter's own fight with addiction, his cold turkey drive to fitness, then his descent into manorexia. The Hunger Games’ Sam Claiflin, who plays the muscular Finnick Odair, has recently spoken of his own body issues. He told ELLE UK that he is “seriously insecure” about his body and that his wife calls him “manorexic.” And fitness model, competitive eater and Youtube sensation Furious Pete details in his vlogs his own past with anorexia in his teens. His personal fight with the disorder led to hospitalization. 

The trend is that one addiction is “cured” and then following up by taking on a “healthy lifestyle.” The problem for sufferers is that the healthy lifestyle goes to the extreme of achieving a perfect physique. And most of the therapies for conquering anorexia nervosa, bulimia and body image issues are tailored to women. The perception has been that eating disorders are an obsession with being thin, and societal stereotypes dictate that only women want to be thin. And yet nothing could be further from the truth. The underlying issue is the quest for the perfect body, be it thin, svelte, or ripped.

According to prevalent studies, a lot of young men who obsess and fixate over body image take to bodybuilding. In their late teens they may go from one extreme of purging, abusing laxatives, starvation diets, and drugs to coupling maddening bodybuilding workouts with steroid supplementation in their 20's and 30's. Studies have shown that as a young man goes from late teens into mid 20's, the concentration on body image shifts. It goes from simply wanting to be thin to being an Alpha Male. No longer are they concerned about losing weight but about getting big. This trend becomes exacerbated in their early 30s. Cold turkey for our purposes means good-bye muscle wasting and starvation to hello steroid cycling and bulking.

In pop culture today there is only one male archetype for the adult male body: broad shoulders, bulging biceps and big barrel chests. No one wants to be the overweight guy with the beer belly. We’d rather look like Colin Kaepernick who at 6 feet 3 inches is ripped with muscles and tattoos or Tim Tebow whose baby face betrays his gladiator physique. These are the media darlings on the cover of men's magazines. And every article in between the covers features countless articles about getting the physique that gets the girl, gets the promotion, wins friends and influences others. 

What isn’t described is what it takes to achieve the football star’s physique: the training, nutritionists and coaches, and the physical toil and injuries that all play a part of a PAID athlete’s life. Muscle recovery time for any intense workout can be 24 to 72 hours depending on age and genetics. But the way these stars blast through their routines without blinking sends a message that these physiques must be attained at all costs. And not surprisingly, former athletes are most at risk of suffering an eating disorder for this very reason.

Enter steroids and growth hormones. Both enable the user to minimize muscle recovery time, maximize explosive performance in the gym or on the playing field, boost testosterone levels, and stimulate lean muscle mass. These are all the things men suffering from manorexia are after. The two most popular culprits are Anabol and Clenbuterol. Users cycle a steroid stack, coupling something like Clenbuterol with a testosterone supplement for several weeks. This is the “On-Cycle.” Then they come off the steroid stack for a number of weeks. This is the “Off-Cycle.” During a five and a half month cycle, users will cycle on one stack for eight weeks, quickly switch to another for eight weeks, then come off completely in a post-cycle phase. The results can be dramatic if nothing else. Body Mass Index can shift from the 20s in percentiles to single digits in a matter of weeks. It appears to the user that the fat is magically melting away and the muscle is growing over night. And for a man obsessed with body image, having a single digit BMI is the pinnacle of greatness. 

In my own case every time I looked in the mirror I was always too small or never as defined as I wanted to be. These are exactly the same symptoms men battling through manorexia encounter. To a sufferer, their self-perception is flawed almost to the degree of funhouse mirrors. Muscle dysmorphia creates the false sense in men that they are too small or too fat regardless of what the rest of the world actually sees.

One of the major trends is to cycle on a steroid to maximize muscle gains and then cut down to maximum muscle definition after a period of bulking on high protein foods. The cutting phase restricts the amount of calories consumed to the point that the body shrinks down to a more vascular look. After a vigorous workout, some males subject themselves to hot epsom salt baths for an hour on end; forcing themselves to sweat out liquid weight. If that doesn’t suffice, some will sit in a sauna for another extended period of time. But if push comes to shove, some resort to the most extreme measure to lose weight: purging through vomiting or laxatives. Look at how fighters in the UFC or boxers fighting for the world championship at the MGM Grand will cut down to make weight for weigh-ins before fighting events.

Nothing about this behavior of cycling and cutting says to the abuser that he has an eating disorder. In fact he thinks just the opposite. He believes that he has finally controlled his eating problem and has become disciplined in order to chase down his physical goals.

To get down to the bare essentials, here are the numbers:

  1. According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, up to 25% of eating disorder sufferers are male
  2. Males are typically at risk for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa in their late teens and early twenties
  3.  Males are typically at risk for binge eating disorders in their late twenties

Treatment is similar to that for female sufferers. Studies suggest that some sufferers may have been abused in their youth, suffer a clinical depression exacerbated by alcohol or drug use, or have been battling questions of their sexuality. Attending to these underlying causes and conditions is the first step towards recovery.

Akil Wingate is a writer, singer and activist based in Paris.

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