Eating disorders have long been considered an affliction of young, well-to-do, white women, but this is a fallacy; life-threatening eating disorders affect people from all walks of life, including men. While it’s true that women are most commonly affected, eating disorders have never been solely a “female disorder.”
Like women, men can experience potentially life-threatening disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating. Men are somewhat more likely to suffer from orthorexia, a preoccupation with exercise; or muscle dysmorphia, a distorted body image accompanied by an obsession with building muscle. And like women, men who suffer from eating disorders frequently experience low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and addiction to drugs or alcohol.
In the United States, it is estimated that 25 to 40 percent of individuals with eating disorders are men. Unfortunately, men are often undiagnosed because they face a double stigma: Not only are they struggling with a “female problem,” but seeking help for a psychological disorder is difficult and shameful for males, who are taught from a very early age that vulnerability is a display of weakness. Often, men may not even be aware they have an eating disorder.
While it appears that the disorder is on the rise among men, specialists are uncertain whether more men actually have the disorder, or if they are simply coming forward in greater numbers.
Culture and Unrealistic Body Images
Like women, men are greatly influenced by unrealistic body images portrayed by the media. From a very early age, girls are taught that the ideal body is thin and sleek, while boys feel pressure to be lean, athletic, and physically strong. While women desire a lower body weight, men are more concerned with bulk and musculature. The images put forth by the media are unattainable for many people.
One study indicated that at least one-quarter of normal-weight men think they are underweight. Teenage and college age males are especially affected by societal pressure, and a large percentage exercise frequently not to become healthy, but in order to bulk up or become “buff.” Many spend an inordinate amount of time in the gym and a tremendous amount of money on vitamins or nutritional supplements. Some turn to steroids.
Eating Disorders are Treatable
Recovering from an eating disorder is difficult, but with help, the disorders are highly treatable. Quality treatment and various types of therapy help individuals develop a realistic self-image and healthy eating habits while learning to cope with stress and other difficult emotions. A good treatment provider will recognize that men have different needs than women. All-male treatment is often preferable.
Many men may require inpatient treatment or rehab, especially when eating disorders are accompanied by substance use or addiction, or by depression, anxiety or other disorders. Some may require medical assistance, as eating disorders such as anorexia may result in low testosterone, increased risk of osteoporosis, and other medical concerns.