Eating disorders have long been associated with women and the societal pressures of body image. While it’s true that eating disorders are more prevalent in women, and particularly young women, men aren’t immune. Around 10 percent of all anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa cases can be attributed to men: a small yet significant statistic. Yet eating disorders in men have long been ignored, even within the medical community.
Thankfully, that may be changing as mental health disorders are increasingly destigmatized and more and more men affected by eating disorders come forward. The changing dynamics have allowed healthcare practitioners to better understand eating disorders, including the ways in which eating disorders affect men. One question that continues to be studied: What explains the rise in eating disorder diagnoses in men and boys, and what can be done to address it.
Eating Disorders in America
Eating disorders are mental and physical illnesses that result from significant disturbances in eating habits, such as eating too much or not enough.
Eating disorders come in several different forms, including:
- Anorexia Nervosa: More colloquially called anorexia, anorexia nervosa is a form of eating disorder in which the patient has a body weight of at least 15 percent less than normal weight. Anorexia is most commonly characterized by a lack of food consumption.
- Bulimia Nervosa: Generally referred to as simply “bulimia,” bulimia nervosa can affect people who are either underweight or overweight. Binge eating and then purging, whether through vomiting or use of laxatives, is the disorder’s central feature.
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED): Those with binge eating disorder consume large amounts of food, often hundreds or thousands of calories at a time, on a regular basis. Unlike bulimia patients, those with BED feel no obligation to purge what they consume.
Anorexia and bulimia are well-known both professionally and from a pop culture perspective, but the inclusion of BED as an eating disorder is more recent. As such, it’s not as widely recognized and thus can be harder to diagnose.
Eating disorders can be extremely damaging and potentially fatal. From nutrient deficiency to weight loss that can damage organs to weight-related joint damage and diabetes, these conditions need to be taken seriously and treated promptly and properly. Young people with anorexia, for example, are ten times more likely to die than their healthy peers.
Eating disorders are often thought to be a solely female disorder, but this actually isn’t true. Around 10 million American men will experience some form of eating disorder during their lives. While the numbers associated with anorexia and bulimia are rather low, men make up 40 percent of binge eating disorder cases. Around 2 percent of the male population will be diagnosed with BED at some point during their lives.
How Eating Disorders Manifest in Men
Manifestation is among the primary differences in eating disorders between men and women. As eating disorders are more prevalent in women, many medical providers are taught to look for the telltale signs women often show when engaging in disordered behavior. However, this completely ignores men who may be struggling with disordered eating but with symptoms that vary from the norms for women.
While excessive exercise is a common side effect for women with eating disorders, this tends to be more central for men, especially those who aspire to a muscular body type. Men may also take supplements designed to build muscle or use steroids to ease the process of muscle development. Some may restrict food, while others may only eat foods associated with building muscle, like high protein diets. Unhealthy weight loss in men can be a key symptom, but this is often disregarded as a phase or normal growth patterns among young men in particular.
The hows and whys driving the differences in eating disorder behavior is likely societal. Men and women are shown different examples of an ideal body type, and behavior to achieve the body types depicted in media can be different. While weight loss is often the primary motivation for women, weight gain and muscle development can also be objectives of disordered eating for men.
The Challenges in Addressing Eating Disorders
The lack of education and information available regarding eating disorders in men is the largest hurdle in adequately addressing male eating disorders. Doctors are often quick to jump to other conclusions, making it much harder for men to get the care they need. In addition, as the signs can be harder to see for those untrained in the specifics of eating disorders in men, many men end up facing significant health problems before the signs of needing help are clear.
Further, men are less likely on average to speak about health concerns and visit doctors than women. One study found that men are 50 percent more likely to die from melanoma, a common form a skin cancer, than women, despite a 50 percent lower incidence rate. As such, many men will hide their symptoms longer than women will, or will resist ever seeking help.
There is also a social bias in admitting a need for help. As eating disorders are seen as feminine, many men may be embarrassed or ashamed to speak up. In addition, some men may not realize that eating disorders cross genders and thus may be unable to see the signs in their own behavior. Without a diagnosis, there’s no hope for treatment.
Another contributing factor to the problem of recognizing eating disorders in men: binge eating disorder (BED), which is frequently overlooked in the diagnosing of eating disorders and the one eating disorder that disproportionately affects men. Under-diagnosing BED marginalizes those men who are most likely to be affected; worse yet, it allows their condition to go untreated, ignoring the seriousness of its health risks.
Building a Healthier Future
As with many areas in mental health care, education and awareness are key in both reducing rates of eating disorders and improving quality of treatment. Men need to be educated on the risks and symptoms of eating disorders in a way similar to women. In addition, men also need to be actively involved in conversations about body acceptance in order to reduce the pressures imposed by the media.
From a professional standpoint, physicians need to be better educated in eating disorders as a whole, as well as the signs and symptoms common in men. When eating disorders are seen as an afterthought rather than a real problem for millions of men, no one benefits.
Treatment for eating disorders can be challenging. Unlike drugs or alcohol, which people can live without, food is an essential part of living— so patients must learn how to develop and sustain a healthy body image as well as healthy eating habits. Learning how typically requires professional treatment, since it’s extremely difficult to develop the habits necessary to succeed without expert guidance and support.
At FHE Health, we provide a safe, supportive treatment environment for men and women with mental health conditions including eating disorders. With a focus on mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, our programming is designed to ensure the best possible road to recovery. Contact us today to learn more about treatment for eating disorders.