Statistically speaking, eating disorders have been the domain of girls and women. Disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating are more common in young females than in males. Because our culture places so much emphasis on unachievable ideals of feminine beauty, it makes sense that girls would be more vulnerable to a distorted body image and a compulsive need to diet.
But males may be catching up to females when it comes to an unhealthy preoccupation with image and dieting. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that eating disorders are becoming more prevalent among men and boys. However, because males are less likely to get treatment, the numbers may be even higher than we realize. In addition to the hallmark signs of eating disorders, such as a preoccupation with body image and obsessive or compulsive habits with food, males may display warning signs like:
- The use of anabolic steroids to enhance muscles
- Spending a lot of time at the gym instead of at work, school or with friends
- Expressing a dislike for one’s body or for specific features of the body
- A preoccupation with diet programs or weight-enhancement products
- Going to the bathroom immediately after meals
- Refusing to participate in family meals or gatherings where food choices can’t be controlled
You don’t have to display the classic symptoms of eating disorders to get help. If you feel that your need to diet and exercise has taken over your life, seek help from professionals who are trained in eating disorder treatment. Eating disorders can cause malnutrition, dehydration or obesity in boys and men. The earlier you reach out, the more likely you are to make a healthy recovery.
What Triggers Eating Disorders in Men?
Like females, males experience a lot of pressure from our society to achieve and maintain a certain body shape. For men, a lean, muscular shape reflects an ideal of strength, power and competence. Men who are overweight or underweight may feel inadequate because they don’t live up to this ideal. Statistics from the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reveal that plastic surgery among men is on the rise, and that the leading cosmetic procedure for males is liposuction. Gynecomastia surgery, or male breast reduction, is another top procedure for men. Men are also seeking out procedures like abdominoplasty (tummy tuck) and chin lifts to make themselves appear thinner.
While it’s healthy to want to look and feel your best, trying to live up to an unattainable physical ideal is as dangerous for men as it is for women. In addition to messages from society and the media, males may develop eating disorders in response to:
Causes of Eating Disorders in Males
- Criticism or bullying from peers. Boys who are perceived as “fat” or “skinny” by their peers may be viciously mocked for their body size. A boy who is bullied for being overweight may respond by overeating compulsively or dieting excessively. A boy who is attacked for being thin may resort to weight-enhancement products, steroids and strenuous workouts. In either case, depression and anxiety may develop as a result of constant attacks on a boy’s appearance.
- Traumatic events. A life event that causes emotional, physical or sexual trauma can trigger an eating disorder in males. Boys who lose a parent to death or divorce may be more likely to turn to food for comfort or to start a rigorous diet in order to bury painful emotions. Verbal, physical or sexual abuse is a common triggers for eating disorders in males as well as females. Treatment for eating disorders must explore this deeply buried pain in order to help the client heal.
- Brain chemistry. A deficiency of certain chemicals produced by the brain, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, has been linked with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Low serotonin is also associated with mood disorders like depression, and males who struggle with eating disorders may also require treatment for a mental health condition.
- Personality type. According to the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders, boys and men with certain personality types are more likely to develop eating disorders. These males tend to have a low self-esteem, are sensitive to peer pressure and social rejection, and may tend to avoid stressful situations rather than confront them. They may have low impulse control and may respond to criticism about their weight by overeating, purging or exercising compulsively.
Which Males Are Prone to Eating Disorders?
Boys and men in all demographic groups may display the signs of an eating disorder. But there are certain groups that are more likely to respond to the pressure to achieve an ideal body weight:
- Athletes and body-builders. In the world of competitive sports, there are often strict requirements for weight and size. Males who participate in sports on a professional or amateur basis may get pressure from coaches, teammates and the media to change their body size.
- Men in competitive professions. Men in professions like law, medicine and business may feel a lot of pressure to be lean and physically fit. Portraying an image of strength and efficiency is extremely important in certain lines of work, and men who don’t live up to the ideal may fear that they’ll lose out to the competition.
- Males with mental health concerns. Boys and men who meet the diagnostic criteria for depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, avoidant personality disorder or substance abuse disorder may be more vulnerable than the average male to an eating disorder.
- Homosexual and bisexual males. Research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry indicates that sexual orientation may play a role in the development of eating disorders in males. In a study group of 135 patients being treated for anorexia and bulimia, 42 percent were homosexual or bisexual. Researchers proposed that sexual orientation may be a risk factor that is specific to men. The importance of body image in the gay community may predispose gay or bisexual men to body dysmorphic disorders and eating disorders.
You don’t have to belong to a specific group or to meet certain criteria to get help for unhealthy eating patterns. Body obsession, binge eating, bulimia and anorexia can threaten your physical and emotional health, no matter who you are.
Which Disorders Are Most Common?
Anorexia and bulimia are the most common eating disorders among males, according to information compiled by Northwestern University in Chicago. But many males suffer from disordered eating habits that don’t necessarily conform to the diagnostic criteria that have been established for these conditions.
The current diagnostic standards are generally based on females, who are more likely to seek and receive treatment for eating disorders.
Male athletes and fitness enthusiasts may be prone to disorders like orthorexia, the restriction of dietary choices to foods that are perceived as “healthy,” or anorexia athletica, the compulsion to lose weight for sports or other physical activities. Body dysmorphic disorder, which causes an extreme fixation on perceived flaws in one’s appearance, is as common in males as it is in females; in fact, the British Medical Journal notes that dissatisfaction with appearance among men has tripled since the 1970s.
Where to Turn for Help
As body image becomes increasingly important for men, the number of males who are diagnosed and treated for eating disorders may also increase. If a male in your life is following a severely restricted diet, binge eating, working out excessively or taking drugs and supplements in order to be thin, he may have an eating disorder. At an intensive, professional treatment program, he can focus on the psychological and physical issues behind his disordered eating and build a stronger, healthier future. Individual therapy, group counseling, nutritional replacement and dietary counseling are among the most effective treatment strategies. Medication therapy may be recommended for males with depression or other co-occurring disorders.
Futures offers individualized treatment plans for boys and men who are struggling to restore healthy eating patterns. Contact our admissions team for confidential counseling about how you or a loved one can get help and support for an eating disorder.