When you think of a person who might have an eating disorder, do you automatically think of a girl or woman? Most of us do. But research shows that boys and men experience them too. In fact, we’re seeing higher numbers of males reporting dissatisfaction with their bodies than ever before. Unfortunately, the information around males and eating disorders is murky at best, and there are a few reasons why:
- Limited data: Researchers have only recently begun to include males in their research on body image issues and disordered eating and exercise behaviors. National data on the prevalence of male eating disorders is limited, but one nationally representative survey suggested that men account for 25 percent of anorexia and bulimia cases (Biological Psychiatry, 2007), while another study found that men and women have similar rates of binge eating, but far fewer men than women seek treatment (International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2012).
- Stigma: This prevents many people from seeking treatment for eating disorders. For men and boys, traditional masculine stereotypes can raise this barrier even higher. On average, only 10 percent of people who seek treatment for eating disorders are male, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA).
- Under-diagnosis. It can be easy for health care providers to miss the signs of an eating disorder in male patients, and they may be less likely to look for signs in the first place. “I work with many males who binge eat but are of normal weight. They may not get identified [by a health care provider] because their weight, blood pressure, and heart rate are normal, yet they are suffering with a food problem,” says Dr. Roberto Olivardia, clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Male body image and the media
The number of males who report dissatisfaction with their bodies has risen dramatically in the past three decades, from 15 to 43 percent, according to NEDA. When we think of airbrushed images in the media, we tend to think of women’s bodies, but it happens to guys too. We see unrealistic representations of the male body in actors, athletes, superheroes, and toy soldiers.
“The stereotypical male body is portrayed as average height and muscular with a six pack, broad, strong shoulders, and muscular legs,” says Taylor, a high school junior from Indianapolis, Indiana. “You either have to look like Schwarzenegger in his prime, or you have to be thin and look like Tom Cruise,” adds Alex, a recent high school grad from Forest Park, Illinois.
What are the warning signs of disordered eating in men and boys?
- Compulsive exercising
- Rigid rituals around food or eating
- Preocccupation with eating only “healthy” foods (“orthorexia”)
- Rigid categorization of foods (acceptable vs. unacceptable)
- Anxiety or stress about missing a workout
- Binge eating
- Substance abuse
- Use of steroids and other performance-enhancing or muscle-enhancing supplements
Who’s at risk?
Anyone can be at risk for an eating disorder, but research shows that some communities may be affected disproportionately. These include:
- LGBTQ youth: Among males with eating disorders, 42% identify as gay.
- Athletes: They may feel pressure to manage their weight for their sport (e.g., swimmers, wrestlers, gymnasts, runners, body builders, rowers, jockeys, dancers)
How you can help
If you suspect that someone you know may have an eating disorder, talk to them about it. Seek medical and psychological help from professionals in your area. Find help and support for students, educators, and parents on the NEDA website.
In our e-magazine
Author and speaker Brian Cuban shares his struggle and recovery from an eating disorder in the October 1, 2015 issue of Student Health 101 high school. The piece discusses how males are affected by eating disorders, how the media influences body image, and how men and boys can get help.