Recent studies estimate that 10 million men will at some point in their life, suffer an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, and unspecified feeding and eating disorders, or those conditions that don’t quite meet the medical criteria for anorexia or bulimia.
Meanwhile, subclinical eating disordered behaviors—including laxative abuse and fasting for weight loss—are nearly as common among males as females. And when it comes to binge eating, males and females have been found recently to be about equal in number.
What’s worse, some studies suggest that the risk of death among males with a severe eating disorder is significantly higher than it is for females.
What accounts for this alarming rise of ED in men? And what can be done about it? The answers to these questions are as complex as they are essential in getting all people, regardless of gender, the help they need.
How did we get here?
Due in part to decades of after school specials and Lifetime movies like “For the Love of Nancy,” ED has taken hold in the public mind as a women’s issue.
This isn’t entirely TV’s fault, though. The 1983 death of pop singer Karen Carpenter, due to complications related to years of untreated bulimia and anorexia, made the public face of ED a female one. Around the same time, the first serious studies of ED in the U.S. began coming out. These tended to skew female, which in turn led to ED assessment tests containing a built-in gender bias, with many questions specific to females.
With that in mind, there may not be much of a “rise” of ED among males. It may be that the research, description, and treatment of ED has grown more refined, so that males with ED are no longer the afterthought they once were. If this is the case, the public will likely catch up in time.
Still, as long as the stigma of ED as a “girl disease” remains, males with ED remain in danger. And, in many cases, they are their own worst enemy.
The Effects of Stigma
One of the reasons that the risk of death among males with severe ED is higher than it is for females is because they wait so long to seek treatment.
While some of that can be chalked up to addictive behavior in general—the very nature of addiction means the addict will try and cover up his or her behavior—it also says something about the male reluctance to seek help for what they might consider a female-only disease. And when that happens, treatment for ED is likely to begin in the emergency room, after the disease has progressed beyond unhealthy to dangerous.
Other Contributing Factors
First, the ideal male body shape—wide-shouldered, muscular, very little body fat—is becoming as common in movies and advertising as the underweight “hourglass figure” ideal for women. As a result, constant exercise and extreme muscle growth are prized as the healthy behavior of well-disciplined men. Unfortunately, little attention is paid to the fact that regular exercise is only a healthy behavior when combined with proper nutrition.
Second, males are traditionally expected to be always “in control” and capable of “taking charge” should the situation demand it. And so, when coping with issues that lie beyond their control, some men wind up displacing those anxieties and feelings of powerlessness onto their own bodies.
Eating disorder warning signs abound for both male and females, and while many warning signs carry across gender, others are more likely to occur among males. These include a preoccupation with body-building, weightlifting, or toning; continuing to exercise despite injury, use of anabolic steroids, and decreased interest in sex.
Treatment at JourneyPure Nashville
JourneyPure Nashville now treats all secondary eating disorders and their co-occurring conditions at our outpatient clinic in Nashville. We offer individual and group counseling as well as experiential therapies. Our friendly and knowledgeable staff is ready for you to get healthy and stay healthy.