Eating disorders have long been considered to exist solely in women and young girls. While it is true that a majority of eating disorder patients are girls, and women below age 40, men are not immune. In fact, boys and young men make up approximately 10 percent of eating disorder patients. To make matters worse, men with eating disorders often go without getting the help they need.
Barriers to Help
There are several reasons why men with eating disorders often don’t get help.
The gender issues associated with eating disorders.
Eating disorders are considered a female problem, and men who have eating disorders might feel that having the problem means they are less manly. Some may even believe that having an eating disorder somehow makes them gay, regardless of their actual sexual orientation. As a result, rather than seek help and risk judgment, they suffer in silence. Unfortunately, anxiety over gender issues can also drive men deeper into their eating disorders.
Failure to recognize the symptoms in men.
People have become much attuned to recognizing the symptoms of eating disorders in women. A woman who suddenly loses a lot of weight and becomes skeletal is automatically suspected of being an anorexic. A woman who visits the bathroom after every meal is suspect of being a bulimic. However, anorexic men often don’t develop the same skeletal appearance as women; and a male bulimic running to the bathroom after a meal might not raise any eyebrows. But there is a deeper issue as to why the symptoms go unnoticed, which goes back to gender issues.
A man radically changing his eating habits, and losing weight, is often interpreted as him going on a health kick, or doing so to meet a specific functional goal.
For example, a competitive wrestler might take extraordinary measures to cut weight in order to be more competitive. Some of these measures could involve disordered behaviors, like severe calorie restricting, binging and purging, the overuse of laxatives, and excessive exercise. These are behaviors that would be cause for alarm if exhibited by girls, but because it’s done by male athletes they go ignored, and even encouraged.
The belief may be that once wrestling season is over, he will go back to his normal behaviors, so there is no need for concern. However, some never do return to normal, and those extraordinary measures become a daily habit.
The lack of male-specific help.
Most eating disorder programs are designed for women, and often run by women. The lack of male-centered treatment programs can make men with eating disorders feel as if they don’t matter, or that they have no hope for recovery. They may also feel uncomfortable with discussing their problems with women present. The lack of representation and lack of comfort can lead to a vicious cycle of shame, anger, and worsening symptoms. Luckily, as people become more aware of men’s issues with eating disorders, we are seeing more facilities specializing in eating disorder treatment for men who want help.
How You Can Help
The first step is to learn to recognize the signs of an eating disorder. There are three major types of eating disorders, and they all have varying symptoms. It’s also possible for someone to have more than one eating disorder, which means the symptoms could overlap.
- Anorexia: the classic sign of anorexia is severely reduced food intake coupled with serious weight loss. Other signs and symptoms include an obsession with food, obsession with losing weight even if they already appear thin, anxiety about eating in front of others, and anxiety about weight, and extreme anxiety about eating in general.
- Bulimia: the classic sign of bulimia is the consumption of large quantities of food, followed shortly by purging behavior including vomiting, laxative abuse, and bursts of intense exercise. Bulimics often hide their binges, eating normally in front of others or not eating at all, then binging and purging in private. However, you might notice that they buy large quantities of food, but don’t seem to have a lot of food in the house; or that they have more takeout containers than seems normal.
- Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia, but without the purging. People with binge eating disorder might gain a lot of weight, and might exhibit the same behaviors as someone with bulimia.
There is also a category called Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) means that someone has disordered eating, but they don’t meet all of the specific criteria for any one disorder.
For example, someone could severely restrict during the week, but have multiple binging and purging sessions on the weekend, which means they don’t quite fit the criteria for anorexia or bulimia. A lot of men can fall into this category because the criteria for eating disorders are based on female patients.