Despite a lack of representation in the media, eating disorders affect all people including men. Men represent about 25% of individuals with anorexia and bulimia and about 36% of those with binge eating disorder, and they’re on the rise. Research shows the number of men being hospitalized for eating disorder-related causes increased by 53% from 1999 to 2009. Subclinical eating disordered behaviors (ex. fasting, binge eating, purging, but don’t meet full criteria for a diagnosis of an eating disorder) are almost as common among men as women. Statistics may not be an accurate depiction because men tend to be more reluctant to seek help so these numbers may be higher.
Some may not recognize their symptoms as eating disorders and therefore don’t get treatment. Many don’t realize their relationship with food affects other areas of their life or that it has taken over their life. They may think having an eating disorder only looks like someone in a very thin body or that men don’t get eating disorders. There is also stigma that surrounds eating disorders and mental health treatment making it difficult for people who are struggling to reach out for support.
Eating disorders are not a vanity issue, or simply about the food or losing weight. There is a complex progression of behavioral, mental, environmental, personality and biological factors. People can become obsessed with counting calories, macros, points and wanting to look a certain way, but this is a symptom of an underlying disorder that has affected the way they feel about food and their body. It might seem like it’s about the food, looking a certain way, or achieving specific goals, but there are often underlying issues that need to be addressed. These can include low self-esteem, the need for control or distraction, fear of not being good enough, emptiness, lack of coping skills, the desire to be special and admired, feeling powerless or out of control, and having difficulty expressing their emotions.
Types of Eating Disorders
One type of eating disorder that appears to affect men and boys at higher rates than it affects others is called muscle dysmorphia. This is a pathological obsession with muscle building and extreme dieting. Follow this link to learn more about muscle dysmorphia.
Men with bulimia (binge and purging behaviors) are more likely to try and purge their bodies of unwanted calories by exercising compulsively, rather than by vomiting or laxative abuse, though those can also occur. This can be disguised as simply a preference to stay in shape, so it often goes undetected. The truth is they may be exercising compulsively because they feel they have to rid themselves of the calories they consumed. Many people who have lost weight were praised for their weight loss which positively reinforced this behavior. This can play a role in how exercise turns into something that is a dangerous obsession.
Many doctors currently do not understand eating disorders well enough to detect them until they’re in a medically compromised state. For this reason, doctors are often unlikely to suspect that a man or a boy has an eating disorder. Parents, teachers, and coaches are also 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. It is a sad but 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 is changing for the better. More men and boys are being correctly diagnosed and treated for eating disorders.
Signs & Symptoms
- Chronic dieting, rigid eating, cutting out food groups
- Significant weight changes
- Excessive exercising
- Talking more frequently about food, weight, dieting
- Turning down social events
- Lower self-worth, self-esteem, talking negatively about their body
- Anxiety, depression, or moodiness
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Spending excessively on supplements
- Taking steroids, laxatives, fat burners
- Purging through exercise, vomiting, enemas, diuretics
Common Risks Factors
- Dieting or being around others on a diet during childhood
- Family history of an eating disorder
- Abuse or trauma in childhood
- Being bullied or teased
- Personality traits like perfectionism, worrying, persistence, rule-following, impulsivity, agreeability
- High levels of harm or risk avoidance
- Significant life changes: Early adulthood, going to school, breakup or divorce, moving, new career, trauma, grief & loss
Treatment often requires a team of professionals who specialize in eating disorders and take a multi-faceted approach. 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. Working with a licensed therapist can help provide support, develop new coping skills, and address the underlying issues that contributed to the development of the condition. Nutritional education and counseling with a registered dietitian is helpful in creating a healthier relationship with food and their body.
If you are a man 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. There are programs designed specifically for men to provide a supportive environment for treatment.
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.
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
Updated by Molly Bahr – 2020
Updated by Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 1997