If you were to walk down the street and randomly pick people and ask them what kind of people they believe suffer from eating disorders, the majority would tell you that they believe it is an illness that is only relevant to teenage girls. Some people might be surprised to find out that older woman and even children suffer, but they would probably be shocked to find out that men also can fall victim to this terrible disorder. Why is that? It is because society is still very much in the dark about what eating disorders really are and why someone may develop one.
Thankfully, this is changing as more and more advocacy groups push for proper understanding of eating disorders. Therapists and doctors are beginning to understand the importance of looking out for eating disorders in men and boys as well as girls and women. This is important, as it means that more people who are suffering from an eating disorder will get the treatment that they need.
Eating disorders are not a vanity issue, they are not about wanting to simply lose weight and they have a very complicated mental and behavioral progression. Despite the most obvious behavioral component to the disorder often being the sufferers changed behavior around food, this is just one of the symptoms and it is important to understand that food related behaviors are not simply a result of wanting to be slim.
People that are suffering from anorexia or some form of eating disorder can become very obsessed with counting calories and wanting to be thin, but this is a symptom of an underlying brain based disorder that has affected the way that they feel about food. The result of this is seen in their behaviors around food and eating.
Having said this, it should be easier to understand that men too can develop eating disorders. It is estimated that approximately 10% of eating disorder sufferers are men, but it is likely that this figure would be higher if more men came forward with their problem and if compulsive eaters were included in that figure. It is very difficult for men to reach out and ask for help because eating disorders are still very much considered a “women’s disease”. There is a lot of stigma that surrounds eating disorders for both men and women.
One type of eating disorder appears to affect men and boys at higher rates than it affects women and girls. This is called muscle dysmorphia, which is a pathological obsession with muscle building and extreme dieting. Follow this link to learn more about muscle dysmorphia.
Bulimic men are more likely to try and purge their bodies of unwanted calories by exercising compulsively, rather than by vomiting or laxative abuse. This can be disguised as simply a preference to stay in shape, so it often goes undetected. The truth is that the sufferer may be exercising compulsively because he feels he has to rid himself of the calories he consumed. Many men, like a lot of women, that have been overweight and started losing weight, were praised for the weight loss. For this reason the behavior is positively reinforced and exercise can turn into something that is a dangerous obsession.
Many doctors currently do not understand eating disorders well enough to detect them until the sufferer is so very underweight that it is starkly obvious. For this reason doctors are often unlikely to suspect that a man or a boy has an eating disorder. Parents too are unlikely to recognize the signs. There is the story of one boy who went to see his doctor when his body weight was very low. The doctor told his parents “Boys do not get anorexia. He is just losing his baby fat”. The young man was approximately 35 lbs. underweight at the time. Is is a sad but ever so prevalent example of how medical professionals can fail individuals. Doctors need to be better educated on many aspects of eating disorders. Thankfully, due to the advances in research and education on eating disorders this situation is changing for the better and more men and boys are being correctly diagnosed with eating disorders.
Research shows that eating disorders in men is much like eating disorders in women. Medical treatment and re-feeding is often necessary in order to address any physical complications that have been caused by the disorder and to re-establish nutrition to the point that malnutrition is no longer a danger. Getting the sufferer back to a body weight which their body can survive at is possibly one of the most important aspects of recovery. Then nutritional education and counseling is relevant in order to help with developing healthful eating habits and menu planning. Treating eating disorders often requires a team of professionals and a multi-faceted approach.
If you are a man that is suffering with an eating disorder, it is important that you seek help. Not only is there is no shame in having an eating disorder, but avoiding seeking help could lead to long-term and very serious health complications. Read the treatment pages on this website and proactively seek out a professional experienced in treating eating disorders to help you into a stable recovery program.
If you are a parent of a boy that you suspect has an eating disorder it is important that you seek help for him immediately. Please look at the page on this website that is for parents and make sure that you find a treatment professional who is very experienced in treating eating disorders in children. Do not let any doctor tell you that boys do not get eating disorders, they do, and they can be treated.
The development of more eating disorder treatment programs for men might help more males to come forward. Additionally, there needs to be more education about eating disorders in males. Hopefully with the increased public awareness of eating disorders in men the already changing attitudes towards them will continue to change at a faster rate.
You can follow this link to read why are men anorexic.
Updated by Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 1997
Becoming John: Anorexia’s Not Just for Girls by John Evans
Boys Get Anorexia Too: Coping with Male Eating Disorders in the Family by Jenny Langley (Published by Paul Chapman Educational Publishing)
Please eat…: A mother’s struggle to free her teenage son from anorexia by Beverly Mattocks