What’s Eating You: The Rise of Male Eating Disorders

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Although much of the focus lies on women, the presence of eating disorders in males is on the rise. According to a Harvard professor, 25 percent of bulimic patients and 40 percent of binge eaters may be male.

 “It’s still so defined as a female problem. Many in-patient eating disorder programs don’t even accept men. For males who need a higher level of care, it’s harder to find somewhere for them,” said the professor. 

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http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/06/17/article-0-0C9B009300000578-426_468x313.jpg

Dr. Roberto Olivardia, Clinical Psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry has studied the presence of eating disorders in males extensively and determined that as many as one in six eating disorder individuals may be male.

According to Dr. Alison Field, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, “the diagnostic criteria (for eating disorders) are designed for females. The goal (men are) trying to achieve is not very, very skinny. They may be trying to get larger. So the unhealthy behaviors they manifest may be very different from those in females.”

One anonymous male in his 20s who has dealt with Anorexia since eighth grade feels like eating disorders among men do not receive the attention they deserve.

“It’s one of those taboo things,” the male said. “People don’t like to be perceived as weak.”

Doubting one’s strength and masculinity is a recurring theme among males dealing with eating disorders.

“Many of the men I treat …I ’m the only person they told, not even their wives,” said Dr. Olivardia. “I have never heard a woman say ‘I feel like a less of a woman for having an eating disorder.’ Every man I’ve treated says he is afraid to look less masculine.”

The National Eating Disorders Association calls this presence of male insecurity “a silent epidemic.” According to the group’s research, “ 10 million males in the United States will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder.”

According to Dr. Field, Anorexia and Bulimia receive the greatest coverage, because they were the first such disorders to be diagnosed. Binge eating, excessive exercise, and steroid usage are more common behaviors, especially among males.

According to Dr. Olivardia, the increase in male body insecurity is a recent phenomenon, one largely influenced by the media.

THE HISTORY:

“Since the 1600s we had writings about girls who hated their bodies,” said Dr. Olivardia. “With men, it really began in the 1970s…the celebration of male physique. Look at the guys who ruled the box office in the ‘80s…Schwarzenegger, Stallone…”

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GENETICS:

“If you have a parent who as an eating disorder, you have a higher risk,” Dr. Olivardia said. “It’s no different than if you had someone in your family who had cancer. Even identical twins who were reared apart both can deal with eating disorders.”

Genetic predisposition and environmental triggers, such as the media or parental pressure often combine to create “a perfect recipe for an eating disorder,” according to Dr. Olivardia.

OTHER FACTORS:

“We get a culture that says people need to look a certain way…look at the action figures. I see boys as young as nine who have eating disorders now,” Dr. Olivardia said.

According to Dr. Field, it is pressure from parents that can play one of the biggest roles in influencing a person’s body image.

“For boys, comments about their weight from their dads have a bigger impact. Both boys and girls, it’s the perception that their weight matters to their dads,” Dr. Field said.

For one male in his twenties, parents were the key factor in his eating issues.

“I would hear over and over again, ‘you need to lose weight, you don’t look good,’” said the male. “It just reached a point where I decided I couldn’t handle it anymore, and I would do anything, no matter what…to make myself look better.”

During his eighth grade year, the anonymous male shrunk to 88 pounds.

“I think my parents noticed I had gotten really skinny, but I think they didn’t care. They were just happy I had lost weight,” said the male. “It wasn’t until eleventh grade when the doctor was like ‘yeah, you stunted your growth. You’re not healthy,’ that they started admitting something was wrong.”

UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM:

Because many men refuse to open up about body image issues, Dr. Olivardia and others have had difficulty discovering the full of extent of male eating problems in society.

“You have to be very creative in how you recruit (for tests). Most men aren’t going to respond to ads asking for men with body image problems,” Dr. Olivardia said. “There are a lot of men that aren’t being caught. They aren’t ever showing up in any sort of studies.”

Both Dr. Field and Dr. Olivardia say eating disorders may be less noticeable in males physically.

“People who are Bulimic, for example, may look very healthy,” said Dr. Olivardia. “It’s hard to look at a body builder and imagine that they have the same sort of issues as someone with Anorexia.”

One study's image of how many men are afflicted with an eating disorder vs how many are treated
One study’s image of how many men are afflicted with an eating disorder vs how many are treated

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WHAT NEXT?

According to Dr. Olivardia, although the number of males diagnosed with eating disorders is rising, so is the attention and research.

“Treatment centers are now including more and more male patients, they’re seeing a demand for it,” Dr. Olivardia said. “College campuses want to know, ‘how can we reach our male students?’”

Dr. Olivardia and Dr. Field continue to research the field, focusing on factors such as ethnicity and socioeconomic class. Further information on male eating disorders can be found in Olivardia’s book, “The Adonis Complex.”

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