Even though many people are not aware of this fact, men can be just as susceptible as women to developing a life-threatening eating disorder. Fortunately, clinicians and researchers are devoting a great deal of effort to understanding why men are susceptible to these conditions, and they're trying to determine what can be done to encourage men to seek treatment.
Facts About Eating Disorders and Men
The three primary types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), and binge eating disorder (BED). These disorders are on the rise in men and women; however, men are far less likely to recognize that they may have a problem or seek treatment for these conditions.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), studies show that approximately 10 million men will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. At present, it is thought that men represent about 25 percent of the total population of people dealing with anorexia and/or bulimia and about 36 percent of the total population of those engaging in binge-eating are men. Most clinicians believe that these numbers may be much higher because men who are affected often don't seek help for fear of being stigmatized.
Age of Onset
While it is possible for men of any age to have an eating disorder, it is more common for men with AN and BN to experience an onset during their late teens or early twenties. BED has a later onset, usually in the mid-twenties.
Self-Perception Plays a Role
Unlike women with an eating disorder whose overall goal is to be thinner, men strive for more powerful bodies. According to The National Association for Males With Eating Disorders, media objectification and the sexualization of males is just as prevalent as for females, and quite likely has a significant impact on the way that males perceive themselves.
Recognizing Eating Disorders in Men
Despite the differing perceptions and desired outcomes of eating disorder behaviors between men and women, the symptoms are very similar across genders and include behavioral, emotional and physical signs.
A man affected by AN may display behaviors and physical symptoms such as:
- Compulsive exercise
- Preoccupation with food
- Failing to maintain enough body weight
- Low self-esteem
- Need for control
- Decreased interest in sex
- Hair loss
- Low blood pressure
- Heart arrhythmias and electrolyte imbalances
- Lying about eating, or difficulty eating around others
Men affected by BN may display behaviors and physical symptoms such as:
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating
- Stealing, hiding or hoarding food
- Weight fluctuations
- Low self-esteem
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, overusing laxative, diuretics and/or enemas
- Excessive exercise
Binge Eating Symptoms
Men with a BED disorder may display behaviors and physical symptoms such as:
- Consuming large quantities of food, even when not hungry
- Eating rapidly
- Weight fluctuations
- Low self-esteem
- Joint problems
- Feelings of guilt or shame
While this is not a comprehensive list of symptoms for these eating disorders, they are some of the most common. All three disorders may be accompanied by other psychological conditions like depression and anxiety which can complicate awareness of the disorder and effective treatments.
Causes of Eating Disorders in Men
The causes of eating disorders are complex and include a number of psychological, social, interpersonal and biological factors. Some common triggers for eating disorders for men include:
- Being overweight as a child
- Being bullied
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Troubled relationships
- Involvement in sports that require being thin or fitting into specific weight classes, like wresting or running
- History of physical or sexual abuse
- Genetic predisposition
- Media influence
- Suffering a loss
Scientists are still exploring the causes of eating disorders, and more research still needs to be conducted, particularly with regard to the biological factors that may contribute to the development of these conditions.
Risk May Be Higher for Gay Men
Although research about eating disorders in men is still in its infancy, there does seem to be a greater risk for gay men compared to heterosexual men. Some studies report that as many as 15 percent of gay or bisexual men have an eating disorder, or sub-clinical symptoms, compared to the less than 5 percent of straight men.
Scientists don't yet understand why there seems to be a higher incident among this group, but they theorize that gay men may place a higher value on physical appearance and, as a result, may feel more pressure to achieve an ideal body just like many women with eating disorders do.
Tips for Preventing Eating Disorders
Prevention starts early in adolescence when young men are trying to understand themselves and their place in their communities. Parents can help prevent eating disorders by:
- Helping their children recognize all of their strengths, particularly those not centered around their body image
- Reminding them that there is no rush to grow up and become a man, despite the societal push to do so
- Helping them develop an internal locus of control so they recognize all their good qualities
- Providing good male role models who embody the characteristics of resect, empathy and compassion
- Being alert to early signs and triggers of eating problems, particularly for young men involved in sports
Above all, listen carefully to your child's concerns and help him come up with ideas and/or solutions that are not centered on changing his physical appearance.
Treatments for Men With Eating Disorders
Treatments for eating disorders of any type have the same common goals; to restore adequate nutrition, to maintain a healthy weight and to stop binging/purging behaviors. Managing an eating disorder always requires medical intervention, but an individual's condition may not be serious enough to warrant hospitalization. Serious cases can require inpatient treatment to treat the physical effects of malnutrition.
Most treatment paradigms include individual and family cognitive-behavioral therapy, which can reveal some of the underlying causes of the disorder, discourage negative thoughts and help people cope with the emotional upheavals they may experience. In addition to psychotherapy, individuals may elect to have nutrition counseling as well.
Medications can also be effective, especially the use of antidepressants for the treatment of bulimia nervosa and/or any co-morbid psychological conditions. Awareness, education and support are key factors in managing these illnesses, but they are treatable and complete recovery is possible.
Finding Treatment and Support
If you suspect you or a male loved one may have an eating disorder, finding the right treatment will likely require some investigation. Treatment is shorter and easier if it's begun in the early stages of the illness. There are many support organizations available, some specifically for men, that provide information, helplines, toolkits and other educational resources which can help you and your loved ones understand the seriousness of eating disorders.
Keep in mind that eating disorders are illnesses and do require a combination of medical and psychological interventions. It may be dangerous to assume that a frank discussion will solve the problem. Men (and women) who are affected by these illnesses often deny that there is a problem, so getting help can be a challenge. Using a plan, in conjunction with medical treatment, can help you or your loved one fully recover and maintain a healthy lifestyle, but recovery generally requires the love and support of the entire family.