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Male Eating Disorder Awareness and Treatment

Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment.

A stereotypical person with an eating disorder is a woman – and there is some truth behind that stereotype, as many women do struggle with issues involving body image and nutrition.

For example, in a survey of American women ages 25-45, highlighted by Psych Central, 65 percent had at least one behavioral issue involving food intake, and about 10 percent has symptoms consistent with an eating disorder.

Clearly, many women in this country struggle with issues involving body shape and size, but eating disorders can impact men, too. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) suggests that about 10 million men struggle with some type of eating disorder at some point in life. And that number could be obscuring many men who have eating disorders, according to Ralph Carson, MD.

“Males are not really researched, simply because it’s hard to get subjects to observe,” he says. “There is a very real stigma with eating disorders. Men think it’s ‘for girls’ or that it’s gay.”

When men do not enter treatment programs, they do not give researchers the chance to understand their stories, their risks, and their successes. So leaning on published statistics does not always tell the whole story of men with eating disorders. “The data can be weak or just old,” Dr. Carson says.

Since eating disorders are not typically associated with being male, and since there are not many published articles about how these disorders impact men, those males who do have eating disorders could be struggling in silence.

It is a difficult issue, but thankfully, there is a growing awareness that men can deal with eating disorder issues. That means there are many new and innovative programs that could help men to recover from the issues impacting their health and happiness.

Cultural Stigma

eating disorders While eating disorders are a fact of life for many men, there is a great deal of cultural stigma attached to a man who struggles with his body image and/or his nutritional status.

“For so long, eating disorders have been considered a female condition, so males shy away from it,” Dr. Carson says. “They aren’t females, so they think it can’t happen to them, or they don’t want to be given a female label or a female disease.”

That stigma could be devastating to a man, and it could impact his recovery. According to ANAD, men are less likely to search for treatment options for eating disorders, simply because they think only women develop these diseases. If they recognize their symptoms at all, they may attribute them to some other illness or issue, so they may not ask for specific eating disorder therapy. Should these men know that they do have eating disorders, they may assume that there are no treatment programs that could help, as they may assume that men are not welcome in eating disorder programs since most are made for women.

Just as men may not seek out treatment for themselves, their family members and friends may not offer the sort of guidance that could lead to an eating disorder treatment program. These family members and friends may not intervene, simply because they may not recognize the signs of eating disorders in men. Dr. Carson uses anorexia in males as an example of this phenomenon.

“Anorexia in males can be very different. They just don’t look as thin as women with anorexia do. Women look really thin because they use starvation. Men use excessive exercise, and when people see them, they just think these men are slim,” he says. “In reality, they are much too slender, but it can be easier to hide.”

Even clinicians may overlook signs of eating disorders in men. “In the past, the clinical reference books didn’t even mention men. Up until recently, the DSM defined anorexia with a lack of menstrual periods. Men were just invisible. A lot of that is changing now,” Dr. Carson says.

eating stigma for menSome men add to the issue by engaging in disordered eating habits that are considered culturally acceptable for men. For example, research from Oregon State University suggests that men tend to exercise much more frequently than their female counterparts. Men tend to get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, while women get much less.

A man with anorexia could mask that issue by spending a great deal of time at the gym. He could run on the treadmill, hoping to burn calories, or he could spend hours doing fast weightlifting moves in order to burn away fat cells. His behavior is driven by his eating disorder and his relentless need to get smaller, thinner, and leaner. But his behavior might seem, to an outsider, like a behavior that is acceptable or even desirable for a man. If most men go to the gym, this man might fit right in. His behavior may not raise any red flags for the people who love him.

Similarly, men with BED might take in a huge amount of calories each and every day during a binge, but those episodes might be culturally acceptable behaviors for men. Some people believe that men, if given the opportunity, will sit down and eat everything they can find. This is a cultural expectation, and it makes binging at least familiar, if not accepted, behavior for all men.

Men with anorexia or bulimia might be influenced in the opposite direction, too. If it is assumed that lazy, unappealing men eat anything they can eat in great amounts, men with anorexia or bulimia who have very strict rules about what they can and cannot eat might be praised for that behavior. It might seem as though they are pushing back against a negative stereotype, and they might get recognition, not concern, for the food choices they make.

Men with body dysmorphic disorder may hide their behavior by suggesting that they are simply trying to change the way they look in one very small, very specific way. They may suggest that they will stop making changes once they have achieved that one tiny change, but for someone with body dysmorphic disorder, there are always new things to change.

There are red flags to watch for, Dr. Carson says, including pec or calf implants, and steroid abuse. These are strong body changes, and they could indicate that something new and unusual is happening; however, they could be issues men try to hide.

When behaviors are hidden or explained away, they can keep families from stepping in and providing appropriate help. That means families that do not recognize signs of an eating disorder might not hold an important conversation about eating disorders known as an intervention.

In an intervention, the family talks openly about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders seen in the man they love. The family discusses how these issues come about, and how they can be treated. The family then asks the man with the eating disorder to enroll in a treatment program and get the appropriate help for that disorder, as soon as possible. Sometimes, the family even escorts the man to care at the end of the conversation.

An intervention like this is easier to hold when the man agrees that there is an eating disorder present. Eating disorders in men can come with a great deal of denial. Men just may not realize that this is an issue, and they may not agree to get care at the end of an eating disorder intervention.

“Men don’t get treatment because they are scared to admit it, or because they are not aware that it exists,” Dr. Carson says. These men are not being stubborn or difficult. They simply do not understand what is happening right now or what should happen in the future.
Men like this may need to have interventions multiple times before they understand why they are driven to eat, exercise, or diet in a specific way. Only then may they become aware of the true nature of the eating disorder, and only then may they agree to get help. That help involves more than weight loss, weight gain, or a change in body shape.

“Men often want to think of an eating disorder as an issue of weight. They don’t see that this disorder deals with deeper problems,” Dr. Carson says. “The feeding can be corrected, but underlying issues also need to be addressed. How these men perceive themselves and how others treat them (bullying, teasing, etc.).” That is the sort of help a treatment program can provide.

Help for Men

“I’m in the field and there’s not that many places to get treatment. I’ve heard that the number of facilities is increasing, but the facilities are not specific. Most take women and men. It’s hard to even find a place to refer men with eating disorders,” Dr. Carson says. “And finding the right place is so important. Men can feel shame in asking for help, and sometimes, they can even feel shame while in treatment. In some facilities there are 35 women and two men, so those men can feel really disconnected.”

Dr. Carson recommends looking for facilities that both accept male patients and that have a large number of male patients. A man should not be the only male in the program at that time.

“I will know that men are seeking help when treatment centers for men start opening up,” Dr. Carson says. Families may need to be selective, but there is help available.

Recovery for men with eating disorders is possible. It could start now. If you, or someone you love, are dealing with this issue, ask for help. It could change your life.

Last Updated on February 3, 2020
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment.
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