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Eating Disorders Are Not a “Female Problem”

by Jane Wangersky March 25th, 2011 | Children's Health, Men's Health, Mental Health, Nutrition
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Most people would picture someone with an eating disorder as a very thin — or very overweight — girl or young woman, not as an athletic, muscular young male. Yet, though eating disorders affect boys and men less often, they do strike them — and the patient’s self-image as an athlete can be a factor. The results can be just as devastating as they are for girls and women.

Let’s take a quick look at exactly what eating disorders are. The National Institute of Mental Health sums it up: “An eating disorder is marked by extremes. It is present when a person experiences severe disturbances in eating behavior, such as extreme reduction of food intake or extreme overeating, or feelings of extreme distress or concern about body weight or shape.”

The main types are anorexia (extreme desire to stay thin) and bulimia (binge eating followed by attempts to make up for it, like induced vomiting). The rest are known as EDNOS — eating disorders not otherwise specified. These include binge eating disorder, in which the patient doesn’t try to make up for binges, but feels excessively bad about them. Eating disorders can be treated with psychotherapy, sometimes together with medication. They often first show up during adolescence or early adulthood. They may co-exist with other mental health problems, and the patient’s abnormal eating can lead to severe physical problems.

Binge eating disorder is about as common in males as females, says NIMH. One in four children with anorexia is a boy. Sadly, though they show the same symptoms as girls, they’re less likely to have their “stereotypically female” illness recognized and treated.

Maybe one reason for this is that males don’t necessarily want to lose weight — they may want to gain weight, develop more muscle, or do anything that will make them larger, to the point of using steroids. They may have muscle dysmorphia, an obsession with being muscular, commonly known as bigorexia. That nickname says it all — even in our sedentary, information-basedĀ  society, body size isĀ  important to a male’s self-image.

Why? Well, we’ve known for a long time how impossibly perfect media images of women affect girls’ body images. Now, maybe, the same thing is happening to boys. A 1998 study measured male action figures from a period of 30 years and concluded: “We found that the figures have grown much more muscular over time, with many contemporary figures exceeding the muscularity of even the largest human bodybuilders.”

Also troubling is NIMH’s recent finding that most teens with eating disorders don’t get treatment for their particular condition.

It can be hard to recognize an eating disorder in a man or boy, and it can be hard for them to admit to problems of this kind. But it’s something parents, teachers, and society have to be ready to deal with.

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