If there’s one piece of information that would be important to know about eating disorders, it is that they affect all people, from all walks of life, including men. Gay, straight, cisgender, and transgender men can all struggle with eating disorders and they all deserve help so they can heal and continue to build a full, meaningful life. Eating disorders have an inaccurate stereotype of who develops them and what they look like. Because of this, it prevents many from seeking the support they need to recover.
People can struggle with an eating disorder, including anorexia, at a variety of weights and sizes. Someone does not need to be “underweight” or appear emaciated in order to have an eating disorder or to get help. We cannot determine who has an eating disorder based solely on what someone looks like or how much they weigh because they are mental health conditions. We can’t know for sure how much someone is suffering just by looking at them. Weight may be part of the criteria for the diagnosis of anorexia right now but it does not mean it is the most important part. Many don’t seek treatment because of this idea of what an eating disorder is supposed to look like. If you or someone you know is struggling with eating, weight, or body image, it is enough to get the help you deserve.
Why Do Some Men Develop Anorexia?
The development of an eating disorder is complex and unique to each individual, these are just a few factors that can play a role:
- Western culture and media present certain bodies as being “healthy”, attractive, and desirable. There is increasing pressure for men to be more muscular and appear “fit.” This unrealistic expectation to look like professional athletes may be contributing significantly to disordered eating and the development of an eating disorder.
- Social media has increased this pressure to attain a certain body type due to constant exposure and competition among peers, not to mention unrealistic additions to pictures like filters and photoshop.
- People who feel out of control in their lives may develop an eating disorder as a way of feeling in control. Controlling their food intake gives a sense of control that is otherwise lacking in their life in other areas. It becomes a way of reducing anxiety, numbing strong emotions, or even giving a sense of feeling powerful.
- Eating disorders tend to develop during stressful periods or big life events and transitions. Divorce or a breakup, grief, loss, new job, going to school, moving, and taking on new responsibilities are all times when eating disorders emerge. They can serve as a way to suppress emotions or to focus on something more tangible like food and weight, rather than the uncertainty of a life event.
- Recent studies have found a number of athletes suffer from anorexia or are at high risk for developing anorexia, due to the pressure to maintain low body weight in order to compete or to “look the part” of an athlete with low body fat. Athletes in certain sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, wrestling, and diving are at greater risk than others. Team sports have the highest rate of eating disorders among athletes.
- There is a link between childhood abuse and eating disorders. A history of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse may be a contributing factor. Bullying and harassment in early childhood is also common. Trauma is often a focus in the recovery of an eating disorder.
- People who have anorexia tend to have higher levels of personality traits such as perfectionism, persistence, worrying, pessimism, rule-following, agreeableness and high levels of harm avoidance.
Signs of Anorexia
- Headaches, dizziness or fainting
- Frequently feeling cold or having “the chills”
- Eating very little
- Eating in a restrictive way, cutting out entire food groups
- Pretending to eat or lying about the amount that they eat
- Exercising obsessively
- Talking a lot about food, weight, or dieting
- May include vomiting after meals
- May include frequent use of laxatives, steroids, enemas
- Severe weight loss
- Being obsessed with weight and appearance
- Depression or moodiness
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Withdrawal from social situations
- Medical problems due to anorexia
Medical Problems Due To Anorexia
There are many medical problems that can result from anorexia, including:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Low levels of potassium and magnesium in the body, which can lead to heart trouble
- Weak heart muscle and increased risk of heart failure
- Osteoporosis or loss of bone mass, causing brittle bones that break easily
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as constipation, stomach pain, and ulcers
- Kidney and liver disease
- If untreated, anorexia can result in death
Working with a treatment team that specializes in eating disorders is recommended. It is common to work with a licensed therapist, registered dietitian, medical doctor, and sometimes a psychiatrist and coach. Successful treatment can often take 1+ years and can include an inpatient treatment program for medical stabilization and a higher level of support. There are also intensive outpatient programs that can be supportive and helpful in early recovery. It is common to come to one of these programs after an inpatient stay or if weekly individual therapy is not enough support. Some programs have eating disorder support groups led by licensed professionals to also aid in recovery as well. More programs are adding online options to help increase access to care.
Fortunately, there are now some treatment programs geared specifically toward men. These programs are designed to provide a secure environment to deal with issues unique to men. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to reach out for support as soon as possible. Healing is possible and you don’t have to go through this alone.
Higher-Weight (Atypical) Anorexia Nervosa
Working Through the Weight Restoration Phase of Anorexia Nervosa
Family-Based Treatment For Adolescent Anorexia Nervosa
Young Adults With Anorexia: Not Too Old For Family Therapy
Anorexia Recovery for Orthodox Jews: Kosher Dietary Strategies
Written by Molly Bahr – 2020