Suffering in silence: Eating disorders in men

Eating disorders only plague young women, right? Wrong. More than 300,00 men and boys are thought to be afflicted, too. It’s time to end the stigma, and get men talking about their struggles with food

In our society, eating disorders are rife. The leading eating disorder charity in the UK, Beat, says that approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Although this figure is terrifying, it’s not surprising. However, you may be shocked to find that around 25% of those who experience them are male.

Eating disorders are stereotypically seen as an illness that young white women develop. This is a hugely outdated myth that unfortunately still persists. Anyone of any age, gender, or race, can experience eating disorders, but there are still many people unaware of this, and men are one of the groups often forgotten in the conversation around eating disorders.

Men and eating disorders

Surveys have shown that body image concerns in men have dramatically increased over the past 30 years, with the percentage of men being dissatisfied with their bodies going from 15% to 43% – rates that are comparable to those found in women.

Studies also suggest that eating disorders are on the rise in men. However, this could be because the stigma around men having eating disorders is becoming less prevalent, and more men are coming forward to seek help and treatment.

When we look at the statistics on eating disorders, the figures are sometimes taken only from hospital inpatient care. This captures only a tiny proportion of people with eating disorders, since only a small percentage with them – those at their most severely physically ill – will receive inpatient treatment.

Many will access other forms of support, such as counselling provided by the NHS or other organisations and charities, private therapy, and support groups. Others won’t access any professional care at all. Due to the stigma, men are still much less likely to seek any support for their illness. This puts them at a higher risk of dying from their eating disorders.

What is the root cause of eating disorders?

So why do boys and men develop eating disorders? Just as with girls and women, the reasons are vast and complex. Bullying, abuse, dieting, feeling pressured while engaging in sport, having a career that demands thinness (such as modelling or acting), and diet culture, can all be a catalyst in the development of an eating disorder in men, but these are just a tiny selection of the things that can act as a trigger.

The media is having an effect, too. The National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDA) website notes: “It has been found that men report experiencing increased depression and increased body dissatisfaction with regard to muscularity, after viewing television advertisements which show men with so-called ideal bodies. The current muscular ideal of the male body is becoming less and less realistic for men, and is a likely influence on the increase in male body dissatisfaction, use of excessive exercise and steroids.”

Additionally, the fact that we are living in a society that still places importance on gender roles, and traditional masculine ideals, means that males have negative attitudes towards seeking psychological help.

« Due to the stigma, men are still much less likely to seek any support for their illness. This puts them at a higher risk of dying from their
eating disorders »

The diagnosis gap

When it comes to recognising eating disorders in men, we are also failing. Doctors are reportedly less likely to make a diagnosis in males than females. Other adults who work with young people, as well as friends and family, may also be less likely to suspect an eating disorder in boys and men, thereby delaying detection and treatment.

The stereotype of eating disorders being a “girl’s illness” can also prevent men from opening up to others about their struggles, for fear of being dismissed, invalidated, or laughed at.

Binge-eating disorder may go unrecognised in males because an overeating male is less likely to provoke attention than an overeating female – and restrictive eating disorders that include obsessive and compulsive over-exercise may go unnoticed, because men often strive to increase muscle tone rather than to lose weight.

Wendy Capewell, a member of Counselling Directory, says: “Men are more likely to be focused on their muscles, feeling they aren’t muscular and need to ‘bulk up’, which is termed muscle dysmorphia, and may result in binge-eating, obsessive compulsive exercise, use of protein supplements, or performance enhancing drugs or steroids. Conversely, in an attempt to lose weight, purging, the use of laxatives, and fasting are common signs.”

Studies show more than 90% of adolescent boys report exercising predominantly to increase muscle mass or tone, 66% report changing their diet to increase muscle size or tone, and 15% are using substances like anabolic steroids for the same purpose. Men are also more likely to engage in excessive exercise as a purging method than females, which can easily be missed because exercise and “bulking up” is promoted as healthy. This will often be celebrated by many, rather than raising a red flag.

It is important to note that if an individual is taking performance-enhancing supplements, and then engages in weightlifting, they are at increased risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

Getting support

The stigma may be dissipating bit by bit, but it’s still a huge barrier. One man told me that his doctor said he couldn’t have anorexia because he had no menstrual cycle to lose. Another told me his doctor thrust a leaflet about eating disorders into his hand and offered no other support.

It’s of paramount importance to recognise, and take seriously, eating disorders in men. If you suspect you may have an eating disorder, please speak to your GP, or go to the Beat website (beateatingdisorders.org.uk), call their helpline (0808 801 6770), or talk to them via their webchat. You’re not alone; help is out there.

To learn more about eating disorders, or to connect with a counsellor, visit counselling-directory.org.uk

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