Male eating disorders are under-diagnosed, undertreated, and misunderstood by many, according to research published in the Eating Disorders journal.
Yet, it is reported that around 25% of those who are affected by an eating disorder are male.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported that 9% of the U.S. population — or 28.8 million Americans — will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Others have reported that 10-15% of males in the U.S. are diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia.
Just in the U.K. alone, data shows that males have a lifetime prevalence of 0.3% for anorexia, 0.5% for bulimia, and 2% for binge eating disorder.
Medical professionals define anorexia as a disorder characterized by obsession with low weight. People suffering from anorexia may want to keep their weight as low as possible by not eating enough food or exercising too much. Those suffering from bulimia, however, tend to overeat (binging) and try to compensate for overeating by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively (purging). While binge eating disorder involves regularly eating large portions of food until feeling uncomfortably full. People who do this often feel upset or guilty.
Suffering in Silence: Men Struggling with Eating Disorders
Lauren Muhleheim, a clinical psychologist and an eating disorder expert, wrote in Verywell Mind that there is a myth that gay men suffer from eating disorders more than heterosexual men.
For instance, researchers from the Eating Disorder study described that gay and bisexual men are 10 times more likely to have eating disorder symptoms compared to heterosexual men.
But Muhleheim explained that sexual orientation has little connection with eating disorders. Rather, it is gender identification that plays a role.
She explained further that individuals who identified with more feminine gender norms tend to have body thinness concerns than those who identified themselves with more masculine norms.
For example, the Eating Disorder journal study found that males who suffer from an eating disorder and body image issues have to overcome an immense stigma. As a result, men often go undiagnosed and untreated. This is mainly due to the stereotypes of eating disorders that made it a gender specific problem.
More specifically, research shows that men are expected to consume animal products, such as red meat, because it represents masculinity. Those who fail to do so — or those who are vegetarian — will have their masculinity questioned.
Furthermore, there are lots of warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders; one of the most prevalent is a lack of a menstruation cycle in females who suffer from eating disorders. This could resonate with the lack of diagnosis and treatments in men with eating disorders.
The Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Men
According to the American Addiction Centers, anorexia in men often develops during the teenage years — this is when both boys and girls become vulnerable to meeting cultural expectations. Teen boys compare their bodies to the toned bodies seen in the media. As a result, they often become determined to change their bodies in order to meet the culture’s definition of beauty.
The American Addiction Centers further reported 33% of males used unhealthy behaviors to control their weight. That may include exercise, diet changes, or both, in order to be slimmer. These behaviors tend to become more intense over time.
The National Eating Disorder Association reported that male athletes are at risks of eating disorders, especially those who are competing in sports that emphasize diet, appearances, size and weight. Thirty-three percent of males in weight-class sports suffer from eating disorders. Those include wrestling, rowing, and horse racing, and aesthetic sports like bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming and diving.
Moreover, 10% of male college athletes were at risk for anorexia nervosa, and another 38% of male college athletes were at risk for bulimia.
“The more invisible things are, the less likely you are to share things”
Some men have spoken out about their struggles with eating disorders.
Celebrities like Ed Sheeran have opened up about struggles with anxiety, addiction and body image problems. Sheeran recently explained to The Guardian that he used to binge on junk food until he vomited.
Others, like James Downs, a man suffering from an eating disorder, described his battle with bulimia as an “isolating experience.”
“The more invisible things are, the less likely you are to share things,” Downs told the BBC.
Downs told the publication that he initially developed an eating disorder as a teenager. At first it was anorexia. But after he gained weight, Downs experienced bulimic symptoms. It took him six years to get treatment.
“It’s quite hard to come forward and ask for help, and by the time you get that help, it can be harder to deal with,” Downs said.
Helpline eating disorders charities and organizations:
- U.S.: NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) Feeding Hope
- Canada: NEDIC (National Eating Disorder Information Center)
- U.K.: BEAT Eating Disorders
Written By: J. Laura