If you were around in the 90s, there were countless made-for-TV movies about young adults battling anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. While these Lifetime-esque movies brought greater awareness of eating disorders, they focused strictly on young, heterosexual white women.
For many years, if not decades, eating disorders have been stereotypically associated with Caucasian girls and women. And it’s not just these movies that fueled this belief, researchers, health care providers and advocates who are aware of these disorders did too.
The truth is that eating disorders aren’t just a concern in women, they are nearly as common in boys and men.
Eating disorders: Not just a feminine problem
“Eating disorders aren’t a female disease; they are a human disease,” said Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “Unfortunately, most of the research and language we have is focused on women—specifically, Caucasian and upper-class women—yet we know now that eating disorders affect cisgender men and boys as well as males who identify as gay, bisexual and transgender.”
Today’s cultural pressures to look a certain way, mixed with the stigma that men aren’t affected by eating disorders, can get in the way of men speaking up and asking for help. Because of the stigma, the warning signs that someone you know may be struggling can often go overlooked.
How social media and Hollywood misrepresent the male form
It’s true how we perceive the male body has changed significantly over the last several decades. Some of the major culprits behind this have been social media and multimedia (TV and movies).
According to researchers, Instagram posts of lean, muscular men get much more engagement than posts by men who are less muscular or have more body fat. The reality is that only 37% of men worldwide are as lean and muscular as the men getting all the attention online.
These images can have various effects. On one end, it can make some men feel more masculine and self-confident and more motivated to work out, but on the other side it can leave other men feeling anxious and competitive, which often leads to muscle dysmorphia, a negative body image and obsessive desire to have a muscular physique.
“Even look at superheroes in movies today,” Dr. Adelayo said. “In the 70s, these superheroes on TV weren’t ripped. Now every superhero movie you see, they are all chiseled and buff. But no one talks about all that went into getting them to look that way, which isn’t attainable or realistic for most people.”
Dr. Adelayo, who has experience working with diverse populations with eating disorders said there has been a slight cultural shift of body acceptance in women, but toxic masculinity is still present.
“Men are the last to take care of their mental and physical health,” Dr. Adelayo said. “They may be in denial or may not even be aware they have a problem. We have to continue to make it OK for men to be vulnerable, so they can feel comfortable seeking help.”
What are the signs of eating disorders in men?
“This is tough,” Dr. Adelayo said. “In women, eating disorders are geared toward thinness, but in men it can be both ways – to bulk up or lose weight.”
Unfortunately, the unrealistic images can push some men to develop an unhealthy relationship with food and their body. They may exercise excessively, have disordered eating where they binge eat and then purge or restrict later or abuse laxatives.
What might have started as a fitness goal can quickly snowball into an uncontrolled obsession that’s unhealthy and dangerous. They may spend hours in the gym and become excessively preoccupied with their weight, muscle mass and eating habits. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, men often deal with other conditions as well, such as substance abuse, depression or anxiety.
Are some men more susceptible to eating disorders than others?
As Dr. Adelayo mentioned, eating disorders are a human disease. They can affect anyone, anywhere. However, there are some risk factors that can increase the risk for eating disorders.
- A history of sexual abuse
- Someone bullied as a child for their weight
- Participating in athletics that historically have focused on body weight, size and shape, such as gymnastics, figure skating, boxing and wrestling
- Is LGBTQ+: Research shows that, beginning as early as age 12, gay, lesbian and bisexual teens may be at higher risk for binge-eating and purging than heterosexual peers
What can be done to help male youth?
Educators, health care providers, coaches and parents can be invaluable in helping break down the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding eating disorders in men.
“It’s 2022, and people, coaches especially, can no longer put their heads in the sand when it comes to eating disorders in men and boys,” Dr. Adelayo said. “There’s a high rate of orthorexia—unhealthy focus on healthy food—in young athletes. Taking a proactive and self-aware approach to preventing disordered eating can go a long way.”
[Also read “Parenting Teens: 5 Ways to Promote Healthy Body Image.”]
Treatment of eating disorders in men
“Males respond well to treatment and generally have a higher rate of recovery,” Dr. Adelayo said.
A multidisciplinary and integrative treatment approach is necessary to fully address all the factors that contribute to someone’s eating disorder. Eating disorder treatment often includes behavioral health specialists, nutritionists and registered dietitians, social workers, health care providers and others.
“There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to eating disorders—no matter if you’re male, female or identify otherwise,” Dr. Adelayo. “Treatment should always be individualized to the patient.”
Are you or someone you know struggling with an eating disorder?
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, contact your health care provider right away, or chat, text or call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 800-931-2237. For a health care provider in your area, visit bannerhealth.com