Why men aren’t the focus of our conversation about eating disorders, but should be.
When problems like anorexia or bulimia are discussed, the conversation nearly always centers around the struggles and issues facing women and girls. Often, what gets overlooked in this discussion is the problems faced by men and boys with this issue. Not only do they struggle with the emotional and physical problems these disorders cause, they also face a serious stigma that sees them as feminine or gay and this stigma keeps many from seeking the help that they need.
Just How Common is this Problem?
Part of the problem with male eating disorders is that very little research has been done on this subject. However, the few studies that have been done, however, reveal a problem that is far more widespread than many people probably realize:
- A 2007 study which estimated that 25% of all those anorexia or bulimia and 36% of all those with binge eating disorder are male.
- 2011 research which estimated that 10 million men and boys around the United States have some form of eating disorder.
- A 2013 study which shows that the prevalence of eating disorders is around 1.2% of 14-year-old boys, 2.6% of 17-year-olds and 2.9% of 20-year-olds have an eating disorder.
- 2014 research which shows that men and boys suffer from the same comorbidities as women: these include depression and anxiety disorders as well as substance abuse.
Studies have also shown that, when it comes to subclinical eating disorders (behaviors like binging and purging, use of laxatives and fasting), males are almost as likely to suffer from this as females.
Researchers note that part of this problem is an increased pressure on men and boys from the media to be lean, muscled and “hypermasculine”. Increasingly, men are also the target of diet and weight loss ads, grooming and body products, cosmetic surgery and fashion, all of which emphasize an unattainable body that can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s body and low self-esteem.
What Forms Eating Disorders can Take Among Males
Eating disorders can take a very similar form in males and females; however, one particular form, called muscle dysmorphia, is much more prevalent in men and boys. These forms include:
- Anorexia nervosa (AN). Anorexics of both genders are marked by a strong fear of weight gain and by the refusal to eat enough calories to maintain a normal body weight. While girls often report that they want to be “thinner”, however, males will often report they want to be “lean” or “ripped”. Signs that someone might have an eating disorder includes skipping meals or making excuses not to eat, an unhealthy obsession with weight and image and dieting and/or exercising too strenuously. This illness can cause electrolyte imbalances, heart problems like reduced heart rate and blood pressure and loss of bone density. It is considered to be the most dangerous eating disorder.
- Bulimia nervosa (BN). Both males and females with bulimia often go through a cycle of binging (overeating) and purging (vomiting or use laxatives to compensate for the episodes of binging). Fasting, use of diuretics and over-exercising are also common. Evidence of bulimia include calluses on the fingers and hands from self-induced vomiting, tooth decay, eating in secret or when alone and making trips to the bathroom right after meals. Bulimia can lead to problems like electrolyte imbalances and breakdown of the lining of the esophagus.
- Muscle Dysmorphia (MD). This is a relatively new diagnosis and one that needs more research in order to better understand it: MD is marked by an obsession with muscle building and a strong preoccupation with appearances. People with this disorder exercise and diet excessively, often sacrificing school, work or other important aspects of life in order to do this. Not surprisingly, this disorder is far more frequent in males but very little research has been done on this topic.
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED). This is the most common form of eating disorder and is marked by periods of overeating in which the person feels like they are not in control of their consumption. These periods can cause strong feeling of guilt or shame and can decrease self-esteem and self-worth. This disorder can eventually lead to an array of serious chronic conditions, include obesity, diabetes, heart problems like high cholesterol and liver failure.
What Can Be Done to De-Stigmatize Eating Disorders
So what can be done to help de-stigmatize eating disorders among men and boys so that they are able to get the help that they need to overcome with problems? There are many different answers to this question:
- Formation of online communities and support groups. As society becomes more aware of the extent of this problem, more groups are being formed to help give men and boys the support that they need to overcome the challenges of this disorder. Some of the most popular sites include Until Eating Disorders are No More, National Organization for Males with Eating Disorders (NAMED), and Men Get Eating Disorders, Too.
- Development of more gender-neutral research and education. The majority of scientific research as well as educational materials and questionnaires are written for and about women. Researchers note that this needs to change if outreach to men and boys with eating disorders is to be more effective. The Center for Eating Disorders notes that education, support and awareness have helped to improve this situation and to make support for men more accessible — and more socially acceptable.
- Implementation of the HAES model. The HAES model is a program to help men and boys with this disorder to learn to think about their body image in different ways. This program emphasizes the acceptance of one’s own size and the sizes of others and to embrace size diversity as well as treating your body well with a healthy diet and healthy amount of exercise.
Eating disorders quite simply represent a serious threat to the health of men and boys across the country. And one of the biggest things that puts them at risk is a lack of understanding of how common this problem is and a stigma attached to eating disorders as a problem for women and girls. However, the development of support groups, more gender-neutral research and education and implementation of the HAES model, however, can make it easier for males with this disorder to get the help that they need and prevent the development of serious medical problems later on.