Helping Men and Boys with Eating Disorders

Eating disorders have long been viewed as a problem that affects girls and women, but the number of men with eating disorders is increasing rapidly in industrialized nations.

It is estimated that eating disorders affect as many as 70 million men and women worldwide. The National Eating Disorders Association says that approximately 10 million American men will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives, compared to 20 million women.

Researchers aren’t sure, however, if more men are actually affected by the disorders, or if the crumbling of harmful stereotypes has made men and boys more willing to admit a problem exists. Cultural stigmas continue, however, and the actual number of men with eating disorders may be much higher that statistics suggest.

Body Dissatisfaction

Body image is the strongest predictor of eating disorders in males as television, movies and social media pressure men and boys to have an “ideal body.” While women are expected to be thin, men feel driven to develop ultra-masculine, perfectly toned bodies.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

There are certain red flags that may indicate a man or boy in your life is struggling with an eating disorder:

  • Compulsive exercise, especially weight lifting or body building
  • Exercising even when injured
  • Anxiety when workouts are missed
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Low energy, lethargy
  • Feeling cold, even in hot weather
  • Irritability around mealtimes
  • Obsessive thoughts about food, weight and body image
  • Rituals such as chewing slowly or cutting food into very small pieces
  • Eating in private
  • Dieting behavior, counting calories, skipping meals
  • Hoarding foods
  • Decreased interest in sex
  • Use of anabolic steroids
  • Bad breath and tooth damage (may indicate bulimia)

How to Talk to a Loved one about his Eating Disorder

Bringing up the matter of an eating disorder isn’t easy, but it’s a necessary first step to recovery. The following tips may help:

  • Read all you can about eating disorders. The disorders are complicated and your loved one may be experiencing tremendous fear, guilt, embarrassment, shame or anxiety. Knowledge will help you understand what your loved one is experiencing.
  • Be prepared for your loved one to be angry, defensive, or in denial. Also, there’s a possibility he hasn’t realized (or admitted) he has an eating disorder.
  • Don’ t approach the subject if either of you are emotional, angry or tired. Choose a time when you’re both relaxed. (Never at the dinner table or anywhere food is present.)
  • Don’t rush the disucssion. If the conversation doesn’t go well, let it go and bring it up later.
  • Help boys understand that masculinity and strength aren’t dependent on a certain body type.
  • Encourage boys to develop strengths other than might and muscles.
  • Talk in terms of feelings, not food.
  • Listen without criticism, judgment or guilt.
  • Don’t hesitate to seek the advice of a counselor if you’re unsure how to approach the matter.

Treatment for Eating Disorders

Medical providers don’t always recognize the signs of eating disorders among men and boys until the weight loss is unmistakable. If you notice warning signals, seek treatment as soon as possible; don’t wait for the disorder to progress to dangerous levels.

Ensure that the treatment provider or rehab has experience helping men with disorders, and that treatment is gender sensitive and not tailored towards women.

Skilled counseling can help your loved one develop healthy eating patterns, an improved relationship with food and better ways to cope with thoughts about calories, body image and body weight.

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