Eating Disorders in Men an Unexpected Villain

When we think of anorexia nervosa or bulimia, images of young, skeletal women are the first to come to mind. Society, long obsessed with the ultra thin woman, has become accustomed to the eating disorder surge that accompanied the media movement toward the waif-like physique. But far less addressed is a similar trend among men—either the need to be ultra thin to overcome obesity and bad body image, or the quest for the He-Man body that society associates with masculinity, strength and sexual prowess.

The Myth of Eating Disorders as a Women’s Problem

Statistics from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) estimate that 10 percent of the people seeking treatment for eating disorders are men. However this statistic doesn’t accurately convey the percentage of men who suffer from eating disorders. Many men will neither recognize that their practices and perspectives around food, body and exercise are indicative of an eating disorder, nor will they seek help for it. As with females, specialists are seeing eating disorders cropping up in males at ever-younger ages, some as young as elementary school-aged.

Why the Trend?

The reasons men get caught in the trap of eating disorders are really no different from women.

On the surface it is easy to blame mainstream media and the ubiquitous images of either very muscular, toned, flab-less, extra-masculine men or the very sleek, slim metrosexual. The increased societal pressure for men to also have perfect bodies often motivates them to excessive bodybuilding attempts or the pursuit of extreme thinness. However, though these images may serve as motivators, the roots of disordered eating patterns go much deeper than wanting to look like a man in a magazine.

Like the girls who develop eating disorders in their teens and/or early 20s, boys also respond and react negatively to critical and unaccepting body messages from parents and family, as well as bullying from other children. Males who are obese, or who have been obese and suffered negative consequences as a result of their weight, are at increased risk for disordered eating patterns. The shame and unhappiness associated with the body turns to self-hatred and often triggers disordered eating and exercise patterns.

As in the case of most addictions, other forms of childhood trauma can play a pivotal role in the development of an eating disorder. In the midst of what appears to be a chaotic, unmanageable life, the eating disorder provides a microcosm of control and stability. The comfort found there becomes addictive—they cannot stop the restricting or the binging or the purging. Eating disorders function like any other addiction, providing a fix, a high, a sense of control in a life that feels out of control, and what seems like a tangible action toward fixing the body or the self that they loathe.

Additional Risks

Because eating disorders are frequently seen as a women’s issue, men, as well as their partners, family members or friends, are often slow to recognize a problem that could be life-threatening. A man who exercises excessively and restricts his intake of certain foods or alcohol may simply be perceived as careful about his health. Eating disorder sufferers are also very skilled at hiding and deception. As a result, even parents, spouses, friends or doctors may not recognize a problem.

Additionally, even if a man does desire help for his eating disorder, he may find that treatment programs and support groups in his area are directed toward and populated by women. While men and women experience striking similarities in the characteristics of and motivations for their eating disorders, an all-female group or treatment program can be a deterrent for men who need help dealing with their eating disorder.

Warning Signs

Eating disorders are often hard to detect in men who may not outwardly display signs of illness. As many men are seeking an ultra-muscular physique, they may appear very fit and healthy, without the typical signs of emaciation often associated with anorexia. But looks can be deceiving. Though a man’s body may not be showing the physical signs of a disorder, he may be plagued with the self-hatred and body loathing that motivates unhealthy patterns of eating and exercise.

It is important to remember that eating disorders are a mental health issue. Thus, while the physical manifestation of the disease is of concern, it is not the most important issue. The lack of visible physical symptoms, however, may keep a man who struggles with eating disorders from recognizing his problem or seeking the help he needs. He may easily convince himself that he’s just “not that bad.” The positive compliments and attention he receives about his physical appearance may serve to perpetuate the denial.

Eating disorders in men are also harder to recognize because of our culture’s association of dieting with women. Men are more likely to prioritize “getting in shape” than “dieting.” Women often desire extreme thinness, while men with eating disorders may seek to change their body composition in ways that outwardly and initially appear healthy. What many may not see, however, is that this too can become a pitfall -- a life-controlling obsession and a severe mental disorder.

Common Red Flags That May Suggest an Eating Disorder in a Man:

• Sexual anxiety, lack of libido, low testosterone
• Excessive and unwavering commitment to exercise, unwillingness to miss workouts
• Binge eating sessions, perhaps followed by purging
• Hyper vigilance over food consumption, nutrition
• Verbal criticism of particular body parts of the body in general
• Irritability, short temper
• Fear of gaining weight or returning to a previously higher body weight
• Isolation, anxiety, depression
• Detachment from relationships
• Insomnia
• Perfectionism
• Significant weight loss or gain

Posted on January 31st, 2014
Posted in Eating Disorders

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