Men and Eating Disorders: What You Need to Know
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It is estimated that 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder or habits identified as “disordered eating”. And eating disorders do not discriminate; they affect all races, ethnicities, age groups, and genders. For the most part, we (stereotypically) associate eating disorders with women. And while females are certainly the larger gender group of sufferers, men can and do certainly suffer from eating disorders as well. In fact, studies suggest that of those 30 million eating disorder victims, 20 to 30 percent are males. This can have a huge impact on their emotional, physical, and mental health and well being.
Men and Eating Disorders
Like all humans, men are not immune to confusion and loneliness, judgment, feelings of inferiority, and the personal desire and societal pressure to look a certain way. And just like women, men desire control too, and may sometimes choose to control food and exercise when other areas of their life seem uncontrollable. All of these feelings and factors are breeding grounds for an eating disorder that can quickly turn bad.
Just as society and the media often portray beauty for women as being tall, thin, and angular, the “perfect” male physique is often portrayed as tall and very muscular and defined. To achieve this look, most men would have to spend hours a day in the gym and become overly fixated on their diet. Most men who suffer from eating disorders, like the majority of women as well, are often dealing with other mental illnesses – most commonly, anxiety and depression.
But there is certainly a physical component at play. Men today face immense pressure to be “masculine.” They are objectified sexually by the media, often being very muscular, very defined, and having very little body fat. Because of the stigma around eating disorders and mental illness in general, months often go by before those suffering reach out for help, if they reach out at all. But for men, the stigma surrounding eating disorders can be even worse, which can be even more dangerous because those men wanting to seek help end up remaining trapped in their disorder.
The most common types of eating disorder that affects men are anorexia nervosa (more associated with men competing in sports that stress the importance of weight or a lower weight, such as boxing or running as explained below) and orthorexia. While anorexia is characterized by restriction and eating as little as possible, orthorexia is a fixation on only eating “healthy” foods. Most men who are overly obsessed with their diets and are striving to attain a muscular and defined physique become orthorexic or adopt orthorexic behaviors. They only eat “clean” foods (fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and natural or non-GMO foods) in very portioned amounts.
Male Runners and Eating Disorders
Male runners who suffer from eating disorders are facing a bit of a different monster than non-runners who are overly obsessed with pumping iron and gaining muscle. The science behind decreasing running paces and improving performance suggests that smaller bodies (i.e. less body fat) run faster since there is less weight to carry. By and large, the presence of testosterone naturally makes men more competitive than women, so men who take up running and get hooked on racing and improving their performance, might become obsessed with lower race times and start “overhauling” their approach to nutrition. Some might even resort to testosterone booster supplements. They will cut calories to an extreme amount in order to get to their “ideal race weight,” which often is not a healthy or normal weight for the body to be at anyways. But then they may want to maintain that weight even during the off-season, which leads to a myriad of health problems, which in men is most commonly osteopenia and Vitamin D deficiencies. And while coaches, teammates, friends, and family are getting better at noticing women who are going to extremes to maintain a smaller-than-normal body size, most fail to notice the same in men – either because it seems to be less prevalent or because of societal stigma against men and eating disorders.
What You Can Do To Help
Getting help when you have an eating disorder is no easy task, no matter who you are. It takes courage to simply ask for or seek out help, let alone advance forward in recovery. Men might experience a specific hardship when seeking help though, as many recovery programs were originally created and directed toward women. Therefore, the language and overall assessments used are designed and more geared toward women. And in-patient clinics are attended largely by women, so men that enter might further feel isolated and alone.
But all eating disorder victims, no matter who they are, need love, support, and encouragement from the ones they love. And that means a gender-sensitive approach to how you talk to and encourage them to continue moving forward. If you suspect that a close male friend or family member might be suffering from an eating disorder, here are some suggestions for helping them:
- Approach them with love and compassion. Ask to talk to them one-on-one and make sure they know you are a trusted confidant who loves them and is worried about their health.
- Be honest but firm, and make sure to listen to them and ask them to share with you what they are going through if they are comfortable.
- Whether or not they seem open to it (even if they are in denial that anything is wrong), suggest that they get professional help. A recovery team of good doctors, dietitians, and therapists and counselors makes all the difference during recovery – as does the support from friends and family like you.
- Tell them you support seeking professional help, and reiterate to them that there is certainly nothing “wrong” with them for trying to get healthy.
- Don’t try to be their therapist though – leave that to the professionals.
- Be a listening ear, a warm embrace, and a loving, trusted confidant.