When I cranked my intake up to 4,000 calories, things started going south.
The first rule of deliberately gaining weight is that nobody wants to hear you complain about how hard it is.
But nobody warned me how hard it was going to be when I decided to gain weight. The health industry as a whole focuses on weight loss—which makes sense when 2 in 3 Americans are obese or overweight—but when you’re looking to gain muscle, the few articles that do exist to help you achieve this goal make it sound like fun. Finally, you get to eat so much you’ll feel like your stomach will explode! Doesn’t that sound awesome? You’ll never be hungry again!
I never expected that trying to put on mass would be one of the most miserable experiences of my life. But I learned a lot.
In the general population, it’s weird to count calories, but in the world of strength and fitness, it’s weird if you don’t at least have an idea of how many you eat and how much of that is protein. I think it’s because the world of strength revolves around goals, and goals require steps to achieve them.
No matter what your goal is—strength, fat loss, muscle gain—the first step is to eat precisely the right amount. I’d venture to say that this is different to how most people approach to health, which tend to focus more on hitting the gym a certain number of times per week and eating “healthy,” as opposed to weighing portions and tracking lift numbers. The average person, in my experience, sees going to “extreme” measures like calorie counting as a path to making health stressful, as opposed to a kind of stress relief.
As for me, I’d always been in the “work out regularly and eat well” camp. But I wanted to do more. At BarBend, I write about jacked, strong, record-breaking humans all day, and while I was pretty good at eating clean and lifting heavy, I wasn’t really attaching that to any outcome, like a number on the scale. I tracked the weights I lifted, but when I plateaued, I just switched rep schemes or exercises. After all, I didn’t want something I enjoyed, like exercise, to be a source of frustration.
But I wanted to be more like those kings of Fit-stagram that I studied all day. I decided to take a more concrete approach with my body: gain ten pounds of muscle and reach the holy land of 200 pounds bodyweight. This was going to be fun, right? I kind of enjoyed tracking calories at first: It was like a game. Every day I had a goal to accomplish and if I didn’t hit the number, no big deal. Tomorrow’s another day.
But when I failed to gain weight and I cranked my intake up to 3,500 calories, and then 4,000 calories, things started going south.
Three thousand calories was somewhat enjoyable: It basically just meant bigger meals. But as the meals increased in size and number and four thousand became the goal, the task of reaching that number became an omnipresent force. I was full all the time, in a constant state of digestion. The first thing on my mind when I woke up was how on Earth I was going to hit that number yet again.
As a believer in eating most of your calories after you work out (or trying to, anyway), I was staying up at night just to cram in more and more food after my evening deadlifts. I’d find myself staring at my bowl of rice and beans and kale (#postworkoutcarbz), not wanting to eat but knowing I “had” to. One of the reasons I got so interested in health is because it gave me some control over my body. Resentfully shoveling spoonful after spoonful of food into my mouth made it feel a lot more like my body was controlling me.
Another thing that made it hard was the knowledge that in the world of giant strength athletes — the industry in which I work, albeit as a bystanding writer—four thousand calories really isn’t that much. I’m not comparing myself to the likes of Hafthor Bjornsson’s ten thousand daily calories or Brian Shaw’s twelve thousand, but there are scores of powerlifters and weightlifters who are about my height and weight—6 feet and 200 pounds—eating well over five thousand a day.
Four thousand is a pittance. If I can’t even handle that, what kind of phony weakling was I? What’s wrong with me if I can’t even consume that much? That added another layer of inadequacy to the whole endeavor. And here I thought I was a mesomorph! What kind of mesomorph struggles to gain muscle?
Nobody else in the industry seemed to struggle with eating enough. In fact, they seemed to love the enormous caloric energy their muscles needed to last another day. These athletes would fang into gigantic burrito bowls on Instagram with gusto, relishing their metabolic privilege, their rare ability to eat as much as they wanted and still get gainz. This is the best thing about lifting heavy, they’d say. None of them seemed to find this daily goal a burden. More self-loathing.
I could eat four thousand for a few days in a row—a few days was fine. But I would invariably get sick of feeling full and constantly thinking about food, so I’d wind up dialing things back. I would tell myself I could eat just three thousand today. But not only did eating less than my muscles “needed” make me feel sluggish and moody, it also meant that I’d have to make that up the next day. And if I “failed” again, the deficit would get even bigger. Then the number on the scale would drop, and I’d feel like I completely failed. More self-loathing.
The tipping point was a beautiful Sunday when my girlfriend and I decided to go to a hot sauce festival in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. We explored the park, ate a little chili, watched the butterflies, but my mind was in my stomach.
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With growing horror, I realized it was 2 pm, then 3 pm, then 4 pm, and I’d only had a little bowl of chili and a hot dog. No more than 500 calories. We had dinner plans that night, which meant I couldn’t control the macros. How was I going to eat 3,500 calories before I went to sleep? The sun was going down. I had thousands and thousands of calories left to eat. I definitely didn’t eat enough on Saturday. I absolutely had to hit 4,000 today, probably at least 4,500 to make up for yesterday’s failure. It’s 5 pm and I have 4,000 calories to eat. I’m never going to get there. I just know those Instagram athletes I’ve never met are mocking me. Skinny writer fails again.
I was having a physical reaction to this train of thought: My chest was hot, my pulse was racing, my lack of discipline was humiliating me again. And I could tell that if I continued on this track, things were going to get bad and I was going to develop more serious issues with food. I have close relatives who have been diagnosed with eating disorders, which apparently increases my risk of developing one. I’m not saying that was my inevitable destination, but I knew it was time to nip this thing in the bud just in case. I made the decision to stop caring. Then I ate some spicy pizza.
I’m not about to trivialize the experience of people with real, diagnosed eating disorders by saying that I was in the throes of orthorexia or some other very modern, fitness-related disorder. (If I were, it would have been infinitely more difficult to simply end the diet when it became a problem.) But I’m a neurotic dude and I could tell I’d taken this too far. What was I trying to do? How would my life actually improve if I gained the muscle I wanted and finally deadlifted 500 pounds? I’m not an athlete. My career doesn’t depend on an amazing chest-to-waist ratio. This was messing with my head and the struggle didn’t have an outcome that would justify the toll my social life and mental health were taking.
And what did I learn from this? There has to be a lesson, right? All I can say is that it’s really easy to let your worth be tied up in your appearance. I know that’s nothing new, but as someone who has been steeped in health and fitness media for the better part of a decade—if you’ve read this far, that description might apply to you, too—it was easy to think I was immune to taking things too far.
I thought I knew that being healthy and strong was something that was meant to enrich my life, but I had lost sight of the goal. If I can leave you with a takeaway, it’s that no matter how long you’ve been dieting and working out, you always want to be mindful that, done properly, health and fitness should make everything more awesome. If it doesn’t, ask yourself if that’s okay.
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