Dave’s problem started at around age 19, but it wasn’t until several years later, when his concurrent depression began to take its toll on his daily life, that he got help. Despite the increasing understanding of eating disorders, in many cases they’re still seen as an inherently female problem. While most sufferers are female, large numbers of men also have eating disorders.
Anorexia and bulimia are the two most widely known eating disorders, and despite their association with women, 10 percent to 15 percent of sufferers are men, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. In the U.K., the figures are roughly the same, with 11 percent of eating disorder sufferers being male. Figures from the U.S. suggest that among gay men, rates of bulimia were as high as 14 percent, and over 20 percent appeared to be anorexic. Almost one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy methods to control their weight, such as smoking, fasting, skipping meals, vomiting or using laxatives. Over half of teenage girls use these methods, but the statistics still clearly show that eating disorders are far from female-only issues. Of all Americans suffering from an eating disorder, only one in 10 receives treatment, and this number is lower in men, meaning that the statistics likely underestimate the prevalence of eating disorders among men.
Which Eating Disorders Affect Men?
While men fall victim to anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, a large proportion fall into the “eating disorder not otherwise specified” category. This means that eating disorders that affect men are often less common or even virtually unheard of in women. “Bigorexia” (or muscle dysmorphia) is an example of an eating disorder often affecting many more men than women: this is the obsession with “bulking up,” packing on muscle mass potentially with the help of steroids. However, a higher proportion of men are also thought to suffer from bulimia (characterized by cycles of bingeing and purging) and binge eating disorder. The fact that these conditions are a particular concern for men means that sufferers are often larger than average, presenting more problems with identification than for women with anorexia, for example, who are often shockingly thin.
What Puts Men at Risk for Eating Disorders?
There are several known risk factors for eating disorders among men, and these can help physicians and family members or friends identify those who may be suffering. Like with women, eating disorders are often a coping mechanism for stress or ongoing emotional issues, but there are additional risk factors, too. One of these is participating in a sport that requires a particular body size: for example, jockeys or runners are pressured to be thin and may develop anorexia or bulimia, and weightlifters or bodybuilders may run the risk of developing “bigorexia.” Another issue, which is also a significant part of the problem for women, is exposure to imagery of “ideal” body types in the media, such as underwear models or men on the covers of fitness magazines. This encourages dieting, even in individuals with healthy weight, which is another important risk factor in the development of eating disorders.
Eating Disorders Are Not Women’s Diseases
The lack of awareness, lower number of sufferers and stigma surrounding eating disorders in men may prevent many from getting treatment, but the problem doesn’t stop there. Sam Thomas, founder of the U.K. charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too, tells his story to the Huffington Post: “I recognized my symptoms while reading an agony aunt column and plucked up the courage to go to the doctor. At first we only spoke about my depression and anxiety; there was no mention of my eating disorder. I wonder whether I would have been diagnosed sooner if I was female.”
He says that since eating disorders are a specialty, many physicians lack the training to provide an accurate diagnosis, especially when confronted with atypical cases. In many cases, when a man is referred to treatment, there will be only one male attendee in outpatient groups, which can be very isolating. Alternatively, men may be placed in same-sex inpatient wards, but will often be the only eating disorder sufferer present, yet again creating an isolating experience.
Raising Awareness Is Just the First Step
The only silver lining is that awareness of eating disorders among men is increasing. As groups like Men Get Eating Disorders Too get their message out, more and more male sufferers will recognize their problems and realize that they aren’t alone. This is only the beginning, though, and the bigger issue is changing the institutional focus on women in both the diagnosis and treatment of the conditions. While funding issues often prevent male-only treatment centers from taking root, more acknowledgement of the issue among men and the inclusion of advice and support targeted at men in existing programs would help them feel less marginalized. Awareness-raising must continue, but making changes to treatment in order to acknowledge the issue among men is vital to helping more male sufferers overcome and control their eating disorders.