Men and Eating Disorders: The Silent Suffering

Currently, statistics show that up to 25% of individuals struggling with an eating disorder are male, with many medical professionals stating that this figure is underestimated and in fact larger.

Due to either personal reluctance to obtain help or stigma or poor awareness towards eating disorders in men (or a combination of these), many males struggle with an eating disorder undiagnosed. On top of that, there is evident misunderstanding from health practitioners when it comes to men and eating disorders.

Although men are more likely to experience binge eating disorder than other eating disorders, the rate of men with anorexia or bulimia is also increasing. The onset of eating disorders in females is typically during adolescent years, males tend to develop eating disorders at an older age. The average age of onset of an eating disorder in males is 17-26 compared to 15-18 in females.1  

EATING DISORDER RISK FACTORS FOR MEN

The typical risk factors for eating disorders are identical for both males and females. These of course include family pressures or stressful home life, low self esteem, perfectionism, weight/body related bullying and weight/food/body focus in the media.

Despite dieting being perceived as a less common risk factor for men compared to women, it’s evident that males in jobs or hobbies that involve focus on either appearance, strength and/or physical activity are more at risk.

In addition, the media and society’s general focus on body image and weight can also contribute to male eating disorders.

The risk factors for men include:

  • Men whose job requires a particular body “look” such as models, body builders,  actors or other entertainers
  • Male athletes especially those in sports which require either a particular physique or fitness level; such as gymnasts, football/rugby players, swimmers, jockeys, weightlifters, wrestlers and body builders. Male athletes with eating disorders may partake in unhealthy and potentially dangerous activities such as restrictive dieting, extreme or persistent exercise and exercise regimes and/or anabolic, protein, steroid abuse.
  • The media’s focus on appearance and body shape can also negatively influence men to want to achieve an unrealistic body type for their individual circumstance.
  • Pressure from friendship groups and/or other men around them to look a certain way.
  • Society / media pressure to constantly “workout” or go to the gym.

These unrealistic body expectations can include being a certain weight or body type, having a 6 pack or other prominent muscles etc. Some men may become obsessed with achieving a weight or body type  (through endeavouring to achieve either a high or low body weight, different muscle prominence and/or with involvement of protein and steroids). These expectations can evolve into disturbing, persistent behaviours that they engage in to reach that body type and this impacts physical and mental health.

WARNING SIGNS

Warning signs in males can include excessive exercise, preoccupation with either body weight, body shape, food intake and/or muscle prominence, excessive weight-lifting, banning or restricting certain foods and food groups, restricting calories, excessive use of anabolics, protein products or steroids.

Outdated societal pressures call upon men to be strong and keep in emotions and when they are struggling they’re expected to keep pushing on and not be vocal about their issues. Now if a male has an eating disorder that’s undiagnosed but keeps hearing about how these women are eating disordered for certain reasons that are related to them being women, they may not be able to put two and two together and often they just assume it’s something he shouldn’t talk about and that it’s something that only happens to women so that can’t be what they’re struggling with currently. However, that is not the case at all. Eating disorders in men are very real, valid and prevalent.

WHAT NEXT?

Just like by writing this, I want and hope that the stigma of having what many people regard incorrectly as a “female illness”, reluctance  to seeking professional help, and an unwillingness to seem “weak” is replaced by adequate awareness and recognition of male eating disorders. On top of this, it needs to be recognised how eating disorders in men are often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed by medical practitioners and that needs to be fixed.

Eating disorder treatment (such as psychological services, nutritional advice and support groups) are effective in treating both men and women, and the outlook for recovery is equally as possible.

If you suspect that you or a male in your life is experiencing an eating disorder or warped attitudes towards body image, food or weight, please consider the resources available at: https://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/

Chatting to your GP or other physician or just a friend or family member you are close to is also a good idea if you’re concerned about your relationship with food, weight or exercise.

It’s not weak to reach out.

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