Much progress has been made in the understanding and treating of eating disorders, but one big piece of misinformation still remains a battle: the stereotype about the population of those who suffer. Many people, including some doctors and therapists, still believe in the old idea that the only people who get an eating disorder are white, well-to-do, and young. The other assumption is that they are all female.
The reality is that many men and teenage boys suffer from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), as well as other types of eating disorders. The National Association for Males with Eating Disorders cites the number of people with anorexia and bulimia who are male to be anywhere from 10-25%. According to Men Get Eating Disorders, Too, of the total number of people in the U.K. with eating disorders, 11% of them are male. As more statistics become available on binge eating disorder, which has just recently been recognized as a category of eating disorders, more will be known about exact numbers. Regardless of where the number falls, it means there are millions of men and boys who suffer from an eating disorder.
Sometimes a male may not just be suffering from one of the more well-known eating disorders. He might be engaging in compulsive exercising, which is using exercise in a compulsive and unhealthy manner in an effort to try to lose weight, maintain a weight loss, or develop muscles. Workouts become more and more obsessive, and sometimes commitments to family, friends, work and hobbies are put aside so the sufferer can get in another workout. They often push themselves to the point of severe physical symptoms, but the idea of not continuing to punish their bodies with over exercising causes great amounts of stress. Not only is compulsive exercising not a widely known problem, too often a man who is trapped in the cycle is seen by others as just a ‘gym rat’. He is celebrated as having great discipline. If he utilizes body building techniques, he risks developing muscle dysmorphia, aka “bigorexia”. If he puts an extreme focus on eating healthy, he risks going from someone who is trying to be mindful of his intake to someone who has orthorexia. For details of these types of eating disorders, see the Eating Disorder Definitions page.
It is already often quite difficult for a person who is sick to tell someone what’s going on and reach out for professional help. When you add the stigma of eating disorders being a “girls only” club, many men and boys are even more reluctant to seek out the support and treatment they need. There is also the perception held by some that a man with an eating disorder must be gay. While many people – both men and women – who have an eating disorder are gay, bisexual or transgender, there is no truth to the idea that only gay men get eating disorders. They occur regardless of sexual preference, age, income, gender, location, religion, career, and many other identifiers.
Males with eating disorders are also at risk of the same dangers that affect females, and the warning signs are the same, too. When seeking treatment from a physician, therapist, nutritionist or other source, it can be helpful to do some homework before making an appointment. Contact the person, or ask someone you trust to contact them on your behalf, if you need help, and ask them if they are comfortable treating a male with an eating disorder. While many professionals are qualified and experienced in doing so, weeding out those who feel they cannot give you the help you need can save time, trouble and money. They may also be able to recommend someone that can help you. You can also contact your insurance company for guidance in where to turn. If you are a college student, many universities provide resources and even support groups for their pupils with an eating disorder. There are a host of resources to examine, as well. One avenue of help can come in the form of online peer support, such as the busy forums on this site.
The bottom line is while progress is being made to better educate the public, professionals, and the loved ones of those who suffer from an eating disorder, there is still work to be done when it comes to helping these men and boys to know that they are not the only guy suffering. If you are a male with an eating disorder, you are not alone. You deserve help and healing, and there are ways to get it without being judged for your gender. If you are the loved one of someone with an eating disorder, keep in mind that it’s hard enough for anyone to open up about their illness. When you factor in a fear of being judged, ridiculed or not believed due to not being female, it can drive a man or teenage boy further underground in the secret and deadly world of eating disorders. It’s important to let the person you care about know that you are there for them, you will listen to them, and you will do anything you can to help them.