By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RD, CDE
Eating disorders are not just a problem for girls and women. Boys and men also suffer from anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorders. The biggest difference between men and women with eating disorders is that women are more likely to seek treatment, says Jessica Setnick, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD, director of training and education for Ranch 2300 Eating Disorder Treatment Program. National statistics suggest that about 10 percent of those with eating disorders are male, but Setnick suspects it's much greater. "Because almost all eating disorder statistics are based on who gets treatment, the numbers are skewed toward females," she says.
Pressure Comes from Media/Peers
Many parents and activists worry about the messages young girls learn from the media. Are girls learning that thinness defines their self worth? Do they succumb to peer pressure to look and dress a certain way? Boys and men also fall prey to pressure from their peers and from the media's portrayal of the physically strong man. Many of the men with eating disorders want to get cut or lean and to have unrealistically low amounts of body fat, says Roberta Anding, MS, RD/LD, CSSD, CDE. "We are also seeing a group of young men, formerly obese, who develop eating disorders because they were teased and bullied," she adds. Another group at-risk are wrestlers, jockeys and others who participate in sports that emphasize a low weight. In certain sports communities, "throwing up food becomes an accepted practice."
"Don't let gender limit your ability to see the eating disorder," cautions Anding. Signs that a man or adolescent boy has an eating disorder may include being overly focused on body shape, muscles and imperfections. Setnick adds additional indicators: anabolic steroid use, excessive time spent exercising at the expense of other activities, heading to the restroom immediately after eating and following a strict eating routine.
Eating disorders affect an individual's emotional and physical health. Many with eating disorders suffer depression, addictions and social withdrawal. These men may also experience constipation, electrolyte disorders, irregular heart rate, dental enamel erosion and low levels of testosterone.
Help Is Available
If you're struggling with your eating, ask for help—even if you don't know if your problem qualifies as an eating disorder. If you're concerned that someone you know has an eating disorder, don't ignore it or think it will get better by itself. Bring your concern to his attention and ask his opinion, urges Setnick. Understand that the primary problem is not food, so simply going on another diet is not the solution. The dangerous eating patterns seen with eating disorders are symptoms of psychological problems. The health-care team, therefore, should involve mental health, nutrition and medical specialists. If your friend or family member recognizes his eating disorder but doesn't know what to do about it, you can help by offering to look for a specialist. If he denies the problem, bring it to his attention again at a later date. In the meantime, learn what you can about eating disorders and make an appointment with a specialist to talk over your concerns and to get support. Your concern and efforts may just persuade him to take action, adds Setnick.
Learn More About Eating Disorders in Men
Reviewed April 2013
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RD, CDE, is a nutrition writer, consultant and spokesperson based in Virginia.