Contrary to Popular Belief – Men, Also Suffer From Eating Disorders
By: Laura Cipullo and the Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services Team
Many people believe that the majority of individuals with eating disorders are female. However, recent studies are showing that this is not the case. Males, also, suffer from eating disorders. In fact, the amount of men facing an eating disorder may surprise you.
The National Institute of Mental Health has determined that an estimated 1 million men struggle with eating disorders or roughly 1 in 10 eating disorder patients is a male1. Researchers believe this suggests, not only that the incidence of male eating disorders is increasing, but the amount of men seeking treatment is also rising2.
A recent report featured in the Journal of Men’s Health and Gender found that a frequent behavior among males with eating disorders is a term called “Anorexia Athleticism,” or extreme and frequent exercise3. It is typical to see male eating disorder patients use excessive exercise to make up for their eating habits or on the other hand, exercising without enough food intake, resulting in possible starvation or Anorexia. Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, a psychotherapist specializing in male eating disorders, states that eating disorders can also stem from childhood bullying (A. Walen, LCSW-C, phone communication, September 2013). For example, a young boy who is bullied because of his weight may be prone to dieting to feel accepted by his peers. This can be a slippery slope that could potentially lead to an eating disorder.
According to NEDA, boys’ and men’s body images are formed by the “attitudes and beliefs that culture attributes to the meaning of masculinity, including the traits of independence, competitiveness,
strength, and aggressiveness. Those who do not conform to the culture’s ideal image tend to have a
lower self-esteem than those who do conform. When males fail to live up to these masculine expectations,
they feel emotionally isolated, and this leads to problem behaviors. These problem behaviors may take
the form of eating disordered beliefs and behaviors”4.
John F. Morgan, the author of The Invisible Man: A Self Help Guide for Men with Eating Disorders, Compulsive Exercise, and Bigorexia, states that if left untreated, male eating disorders can affect aspects of the man’s life, such as “interference with their work, social activities, or just meeting day-to-day responsibilities”5. “While the effects of an eating disorder don’t differ dramatically between males and females,” Andrew Walen explains, “males typically experience a deeper feeling of shame.” The male psyche has an “I can handle it” mentality and admitting the need for help can be difficult for men. There is often a sense of isolation for men, even in recovery (phone communication, September 2013).The good news is that the amount of resources for males with eating disorders is beginning to change with the increasing level of awareness.
Study authors, Kearney-Cooke and Steichen-Asch, state that in our modern day culture “muscular build, overt physical aggression, competence at athletics, competitiveness, and independence” are desirable traits for males, while, “dependency passivity, inhibition of physical aggression, smallness, and neatness” are often viewed as more appropriate for females6. Here at EALM, we encourage families to be very cautious and not fall prey to furthering this type of categorizing and or stereotyping of boys and girls. We ask parents to educate yourselves on eating disorder warning signs that your sons may exhibit.
Possible Warning Signs of EDO Young Boys:
- Experienced a negative reaction to their bodies from their peers at a young age6.
- Tendency to share a closer relationship with their mothers, in comparison to their fathers.
- Dieting in response to being overweight, (whereas females begin to diet because they may “feel” overweight).
- Likely to manage their weight through exercise and calorie restriction.
- Fixated on building a muscular “shape,” or a certain look. They are less likely to be fixated on their actual weight on the scale.
- Participate in the following sports: gymnasts, runners, body builders, rowers, wrestlers, jockeys, dancers, and swimmers. Are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders because their sports necessitate weight restriction. It is important to note that weight loss in an attempt to improve athletic ability differs from an eating disorder when the central psychopathology is absent4.
In addition to the above signs, there are psychological and biological factors that may also be associated with eating disorders including, but not limited to the following:
- A lack of coping skills or a lack of control over one’s life
- Experiencing anxiety, depression, anger, stress, or loneliness
- Having a family member with an eating disorder
If you feel that you, or a family member, may be suffering from an eating disorder, we’ve provided some suggestions from Andrew Walen:
- Visit The National Association for Males with Eating Disorders, Inc.
- Find a male therapist or find a program that understands the male perspective.
- Get help wherever you can, educate yourself, and be sure to include your family.
- Lastly, don’t let shame or your eating disorder voice tell you that you aren’t worth it, because you are.
Here are our recommended resources:
National Eating Disorder Association, NEDA
The International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals Foundation, iaedp Foundation
The International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals Foundation of NY, iaedpNY Foundation
The Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center
Diet, Detox, or Disorder – An article featuring Laura Cipullo
If you live in the NYC area, come join us on Sunday, October 6th in a walk to raise awareness of eating disorders at the NYC NEDA Walk. Click here to learn more.
1. Strother, E., Lemberg, R., Stanford, S. C., & Turberville, D. 2012. Eating Disorders in men: Underdiagnosed, undertreated, and Misunderstood. Eating Disorders, 20(5), 346-355.
2. Striegel R.H., Rosselli F., Perrin N., DeBar L., Wilson G.T., May A., and Kraemer, H.C. Gender Difference in the Prevalence of Eating Disorder Symptoms. Intnl J of Eat Dis. 2009; 42.5: 471-474. Available at: http://works.bepress.com/ruth_striegel/24
3. Weltzin, T. 2005. Eating disorders in men: Update. Journal of Men’s Health & Gender, 2: 186–193.
4. Shiltz T. Research on Males and Eating Disorders. NEDA. undefined. Available athttp://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/research-males-and-eating-disorders. Accessed September 20, 2013
5. Morgan, J. 2008. The invisible man: A self-help guide for men with eating disorders, compulsive exercise, and bigorexia, New York, NY: Routledge.
6. Kearney-Cooke, A., Steichen-Asch, E. 1990. Men, body image, and eating disorders. Males and Eating Disorders. 54-74.