Men and Eating Disorders

Many people have the false impression that eating disorders affect only women.  In fact, research indicates that eating disorders can affect people of all ethnicities, races, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, and genders.  For example, there are documented cases of men suffering from anorexia nervosa dating back as far as the 1600s.  It is estimated that one million men in America currently suffer from an eating disorder, including Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder, and approximately 10% of individuals coming to the attention of health care professionals are male.

The cultural ideal for male body shape emphasizes an athletic, muscular build.  While some males with disordered eating focus primarily on weight loss, others may work toward “bulking up” by gaining muscle and losing fat.  Males that participate in sports that necessitate weight restriction (gymnasts, runners, body builders, rowers, wrestlers, jockeys, dancers, and swimmers) may be particularly vulnerable to eating disorders.

Despite different societal expectations for men and women, the underlying conflicts associated with eating disorders are often very similar.  Like women, men with eating disorders struggle with difficulty expressing emotions, anxiety, depression, control issues, and shame.  In recent decades, dieting has become more acceptable in men, and pressure from the media for men to attain the “ideal” body has increased as well.

Greater awareness has resulted in a recent increase of identified eating disorders in males.  Unfortunately, it remains difficult for these men to seek treatment once an eating disorder is identified.  A common reason is that there are relatively few inpatient treatment programs available, the majority of which do not treat males.  It is also common for males to avoid treatment because their disordered eating behaviors serve certain athletic goals, such as maintaining a weight class in wrestling.  Social stereotypes of masculinity may also deter men from seeking therapy; it may not feel acceptable to ask for help.

Source:  Adapted from National Eating Disorder Association, www.NationalEatingDisorders.org.