In this article, I’ve decided to tackle the topic of males with eating disorders for a couple of reasons: 1) I am working with more men with this problem than ever before and have noticed a huge rise in this phenomenon as an Eating Disorders Therapist and 2) I feel that we don’t discuss how boys and men are vulnerable to eating disorders enough and how to help them avoid the eating disorder trap.
I am working with a number of men lately who engage in all kinds of disordered eating practices and who suffer from low self-esteem and very poor body image. Their stories have deeply touched me and forced me to re-examine my beliefs around eating disorders being mostly a female phenomenon.
Research backs me up on my sense that more men than ever before are struggling with eating disorders. Dr. Mark Warren, clinical psychiatrist and medical director of the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders explains that eating disorder prevalence rates have grown substantially in recent years: “In the ’60s and ’70s, eating disorders in men were thought to be almost nonexistent, in the ’80s and ’90s about 10% and now 25-30%. So all we know is that it is more prevalent than was previously thought.”
This is a staggering statistic! In less than a twenty-year period, eating disorder rates have more than doubled for boys and men.
A study from the University of Toronto estimates that one in every six people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa is male.
Interestingly, the increasingly high rate of eating disorders among males is also a Western phenomenon. A recent Harvard study found that Asian men show less dissatisfaction with their bodies than males in the United States and Europe. The researchers found that this is because Western males are far more preoccupied with being muscular than Asian males.
Gay males are at particularly high risk for developing eating disorders for many reasons. I don’t have time to expand on this in such a short article, but if you want to learn more, I have found a great resource on this topic and suggest you read this fascinating article.
So why are males in Western society at such high risk?
The following information is adapted from a presentation from NEDA’s latest conference called, “Why do Males have Eating Disorders and How do They Get Better?” Theodore E. Weltzin, MD and Melissa Schneider, MA (Rogers Memorial Hospital).
A few of the risk factors for males include:
Attempts at Weight Loss
Males are more likely to be overweight than females and often resort to diets in order to lose weight. And we know that dieting is the first step to the development of serious eating disorders.
The current body ideal in our culture for men is to be fit and have obvious muscle definition (a good example are the Calvin Klein underwear ads for men-what an impossible ideal to live up to!)
High Risk Sports/Activities
Boys and men are expected to engage in dangerous “masculine” sports like football, rock-climbing, and rugby. These activities call for a fit, bulky body, which increases pressure on them to live up to the body ideal called for.
Societal influences include unrealistic body ideals. For example, most men perceive the ideal body image to be 13 kg more muscular than they actually are. Most heterosexual men also believe that women prefer men who are much bigger than they are.
And sadly, Yang, Gray, and Pope (2005) point out that: “In most western societies the man’s traditional roles have declined leading some to suggest that young men may have increasing focus on their bodies as one the few remaining sources of masculine self-esteem.”
Lastly, research findings in males with eating disorders show that sufferers:
- Were more likely to be obese/teased when young
- Diet to achieve a muscular body
- Often have gender identity issues
- Are often survivors of sexual abuse
- Are often involved in weight related sports
- Have experienced separation or the loss of a father while growing up