Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.
By Tom Tjornehoj
“Bulimia destroyed my body when I mixed it with drugs and alcohol for 17 years,” shares MK at HeroesInRecovery.com. “My second DUI and my [failing] health made me realize how bad I’d become. I chose to stay clean and figure out what I was afraid of.”
“I saw a yoga teacher share her journey [at HeroesInRecovery.com] and began my own journey of finding my true self. Life is amazing today. I feel better than ever. It’s hard some days, but in the end I’m healthy, happy and in a much better place.”
The stereotypical person many Americans first think of when hearing “eating disorders” is likely a wealthy, white, adolescent girl with anorexia nervosa. However, in truth, such presumptions are erroneous.1
Long considered an affliction unique to females, eating disorders — the most deadly of all mental illnesses — are affecting men more and more.2 In fact, one in five people with anorexia is a man. That’s right, 20 percent … and rising. For the most part, men suffer from this debilitating illness in the same way that women do. However, there’s one key difference: For so many men, help is not on the way.3
Access to appropriate care will become more readily available when the social stigmas associated with eating disorders are eradicated – even within the field of medicine.1 Education and an open mind are key contributors toward that end.2
Social Stigmas Stifle Recognition and Acceptance of This Illness in Men
Males face a double stigma. First off, as mentioned, eating disorders are viewed as a female malady. Then there’s also the stigma surrounding mental illness.1
To top it off, men with eating disorders often experience accompanying depression and shame. America’s social mores dictate that the gender that is generally stronger physically should also be the stronger psychologically and emotionally. That is, real men should hide any vulnerability they may have.
Going even further down the rabbit hole, alcohol or other drugs are often used by men to self-medicate their negative thoughts, guilt and fear. Additionally, encouragement to drink or use drugs comes with the belief that substances actually help to control weight.4
In many cases, men who are dealing with an eating disorder feel too ashamed to go to a doctor. And, to further complicate matters, many doctors fail to connect the dots in detecting eating disorders in men. Primary-care physicians just don’t consider it right off, or even after much thought. Doctors – like everyone else – are not immune to being influenced by social stigmas.3
Hollywood and the Media Have Set the Tone for Public Perception
There has been a significant increase in pop culture’s attention to an idealized male body. It is clearly set out for all to see and imitate. Everything from action figures to advertisements portray what is, for many boys — both young and old — an unrealistic and unattainable body type.4
Athletes and actors alike display their sculpted physiques. “The people you see on billboards and magazines and TV — it gave me something to compare myself to,” says one young observer. “Every movie I watched, every singer. I could never…look as good.”3
Fortunately, some men who are in the spotlight, such as Aaron Carter, are opening up about their battle. While Carter claims that a hiatal hernia is partly to blame, the popular singer admits to having an eating disorder. Denying drug use (in response to many tweets), he adds that “any of my fans who I let down … I’m so sorry … All things done in the dark always come to light.”5
Truth be told, even among women, it took decades for those with eating disorders to emerge from shame and secrecy. So, with only a few men of prominence going public (and with social mores making it difficult for men to admit to having any weaknesses), it could be another couple decades before eating disorder stigmas fade for men.2
Essential Information Related to Eating Disorders
There are three main types of eating disorders:
- Anorexia nervosa – People with this issue see themselves as overweight, despite their severe weight loss.
- Bulimia nervosa – People who deal with this issue eat huge amounts of food (binge eat) and then purge it (via vomiting, laxatives or diuretics), starve their body or work it off through extensive exercise.
- Binge-eating disorder – In contrast to bulimia, people with this condition binge without the purging, leading to significant weight gain.
Eating disorders often co-occur with depression, substance abuse or anxiety disorders. In addition, they can cause other physical consequences like heart and kidney distress, as well as death.6
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate – between 5 and 10 percent – of any mental illness. Half of the deaths are by suicide. The other half occur from medical complications. The illness lasts an average of eight years in men. That’s about two years longer than women. This could be due to men waiting longer to seek treatment. The organs of an anorexic’s body also seem to retain the scars of being starved.3
With regard to bulimia, about 10 percent of cases are thought to be men.7 Binge eating disorder seems to occur almost equally in males and females.1
Finding the Right Treatment Facility Can Be a Real Challenge … or Right in Front of You
As with other medical and mental health issues, getting help early for an eating disorder is critical.8
Treatment should not be one-size-fits-all.1 Strategies typically include monitoring, talk therapy, nutritional counseling and, in some cases, medication.8 In addition to physical and psychological factors, biological and cultural contributors should be considered.1
Finding a quality treatment center is a key factor to a successful recovery. Care providers who are both knowledgeable and undeterred by social stigmas can be hard to find, as mentioned in this article. With a little research, you can find resources and facilities with the goal of healing the whole person.
1 “Research on Males and Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders Association, 2016.
2 “Eating Disorders Creep Up Among Males.” Scientific American, December 29, 2016.
3 “20% of Anorexics Are Men.” GQ, September 13, 2012.
4 “Eating Disorders in Men: Underdiagnosed, Undertreated, and Misunderstood.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, September 17, 2012.
5 “Aaron Carter: ‘Basically, I Have an Eating Disorder.’” USA Today, April 26, 2017.
6 “Understanding Eating Disorders.” MedlinePlus, National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Spring 2008.
7 “Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Males: A Review of Rates Reported in Academic Research and UK Mass Media.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, August 17, 2015.
8 “Eating Disorders.” MedlinePlus, National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 13, 2017.