There’s a common misconception that eating disorders only impact a certain type of person. But just like any other mental health condition, eating disorders don’t discriminate.
June is Men’s Mental Health Month, so we sat down with our expert, Marissa Edwards, PhD, post-doctoral fellow at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, to learn how eating disorders impact men.
What is the likelihood that someone who identifies as male will develop an eating disorder?
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorders will affect 10 million U.S. males at some point in their lives. Nearly one in three people struggling with an eating disorder is male. And, disordered eating behaviors like binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting for weight loss, are nearly as common among men as they are among women.
Is there a specific age when boys/men are most at risk of developing an eating disorder?
Eating disorders can develop as early as childhood and continue into adolescence and adulthood. During puberty, boys may begin to feel pressure to achieve the ideal "masculine" figure. Changes in diet, behavior, and perceptions of body image can contribute to the development of eating disorders. Major life changes and stressors in adulthood can also contribute to the development of an eating disorder. On top of that, biological, societal, and family influences can play a role in the development of disordered eating patterns.
How do society and media culture influence male body image ideals?
Media and marketing industries capitalize on stereotypical attractiveness standards to market their products to consumers. Consequently, we are inundated with messages and reminders to try and achieve this ‘standard’ of attractiveness. The media often depicts the ideal male body as being toned and muscular. These messages begin as early as childhood with muscle bound action figures and superheroes, and can be seen in movies, television shows, fitness products, and weight loss advertisements around the world. Like their female counterparts, boys and men often compare their bodies to what is represented in the media. As a result, individuals become determined to conform their body to society’s definition of "manhood” and attractiveness.
Why are male athletes at risk for developing an eating disorder?
According to NEDA, those who compete in sports that tend to emphasize diet, appearance, size, and weight are at a higher risk of developing disordered eating patterns. In weight-class sports and aesthetic sports (like bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming, diving), about 33% of male athletes are affected. The expectation for males to meet very specific, and sometimes challenging, weight or appearance standards can lead to drastic measures to perform at a more “optimal level.”
Why are men underdiagnosed and less likely to seek treatment for eating disorders?
Men are significantly underdiagnosed and far less likely to seek treatment for their eating disorders, due in large part to societal and cultural bias. Traditionally, men and eating disorders are not synonymous. It is likely that initial physical or emotional symptoms of an eating disorder (rapid weight loss or gain, fatigue, changes in mood etc.) may be attributed to another illness or disorder due to gender bias. Men suffering from eating disorders and body image issues have been neglected in both diagnoses and treatment as a result of tremendous stigma. It is common that men feel ashamed, embarrassed, or weak for seeking help for an eating disorder. Additionally, assessments and screenings with language geared to women and girls have led to misconceptions about the nature of disordered eating in men. Societal stereotypes of eating disorders inhibit the availability of evidence-based treatment specific for males and tend to decrease successful management of gender specific problems.
How can we help men feel comfortable in seeking help?
One way to help to men feel more comfortable seeking help is to convince them that the things they need help with are "normal." Validate and normalize the fear they may be experiencing. Also, acknowledge the courage it takes to seek help. Try to recognize and verbalize that you understand how hard reaching out can be.
How can we break the stigma for men and eating disorders?
A major way we can help break the stigma about eating disorders in men includes being vigilant and observant of behaviors. Healthcare providers should consider eating disorders a ‘person problem’ rather than a ‘female problem.’ Having conversations, open dialogue, asking questions, and seeking answers from trusted resources are a few other things that individuals can do to help reduce stigma. Additionally, normalizing differences in bodies and weight may help to reduce factors that influence eating disorder development.
Are there risk factors for eating disorders that men experience more often?
While men often have the same symptoms and risk factors as women, there are sometimes a few differences. For example, men with eating disorders are more likely to compensate binge eating with intense exercise than they are with other purging behaviors. Additionally, males with eating disorders may be more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors than females.
Are there any male-specific treatment options available? Where can men seek help?
A gender-sensitive approach with recognition of different needs and dynamics for males is critical. Treatment is not one-size-fits-all and should be tailored to fit the needs of the individual – that’s the approach we take at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. For any person, biological, social, and cultural factors should be considered when fostering an effective treatment environment. Early intervention is critical as the risk of mortality for males with eating disorders tends to be higher than it is for females.
How can you help a family, friend, or loved one that you think is suffering from an eating disorder?
People with eating disorders often don’t recognize or admit the severity of their illness. Family members and friends can be helpful in ensuring that the person with an eating disorder receives needed care and rehabilitation. Know the warning signs and commit to doing research regarding eating disorders. Become familiar with challenges they face. When you try to be understanding and supportive, individuals with eating disorders may be more willing to accept help.
More information and resources
Eating Disorders in Men & Boys
Eating Disorders in LGBTQ+ Populations