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Men and eating disorders

It is easy to forget that eating disorders is not a condition exclusive to females. Males are also affected, and although fewer men than women are diagnosed and treated for eating disorders, according to the largest UK eating disorder charity organisation, B-EAT the number of male sufferers is on the rise.

Prevalence of male eating disorders

According to B-EAT approximately 10% of people with eating disorders are men. The fact that this number is on the increase highlights the importance of bringing awareness to the issue. In 2000 B-EAT published the results of a review of specialist health care provision in the UK, that indicate that gender and sexual orientation are significant factors in the prevalence of male eating disorders. Approximately 20% of men with eating disorders identify as gay, which is double the proportion of gay men in the UK.

Triggers for eating disorders in men

While in our society there is generally less cultural pressure on men to be slim, men, like women, are susceptible to the notion of an ideal body type which is enforced by the media. Covert and overt societal messages that informs us about the ideal body size, shape, and weight are targeted towards both men and women, and men can also be inclined to internalise these ideals. On a daily basis we are all exposed to billboards of half naked men using their ripped six packs and buff upper bodies to sell everything from designer underwear to perfume. The message seems to be, ‘if you look like this, you’ll be attractive, worthy, and in control’. Such messages are highly suggestive and while we are able to intellectually distance ourselves from them, such messages work on a subliminal level that renders our conscious mind powerless.

However, holding the media and internal messages to blame does not suffice in explaining the etiology of eating disorders. Although media influences are unquestionably a contributing factor for many sufferers, and remain triggering for most people in recovery, the disorder usually develops in men, in response to a specific trigger. These triggers include, but are not limited to peer pressure and a desire to avoid bullying or teasing for being overweight since childhood. Studies also indicate that certain athletic activities appear to put males at risk for developing eating disorders. Therefore body builders, runners, swimmers, gymnasts, and dancers are at greater risk primarily because of the weight restrictions necessitated by their sports.

The clinical presentation of eating disorders is similar for men and women, and more information on the signs and symptoms of Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating can be found on our website. It is believed that a large number of men suffer in silence as coming forward and speaking about an eating disorder wrongly believe by many to be a disorder exclusive to women, can be daunting. In cases where GP’s fail to recognise symptoms and make prompt referrals to eating disorder specialists the disorder can increase in severity making treatment more difficult. Rarely does a person suffering from an eating disorder tick all the boxes and fall neatly into one category. Regardless, because eating disorders are egosyntonic, in other words a serious mental illness that makes the sufferer blind to the severity of their problem, the sufferer is often not able to make the decision to seek treatment without the care and support of loved ones.

Eating disorders do affect men and women

Eating disorders are perceived to affect women and only women. This is a huge misconception as eating disorders do affect men and there are men who are struggling with eating disorders. It is about time to recognise that men, just as well as women, have concerns over their weight, body, shape and appearance.

Men with eating disorders are reluctant to admit to having an eating disorder which is stereotypically perceived to be ‘a female disease’ or ‘girls’ problems’. Being a man with an eating disorder can be perceived to be ‘less masculine’ and ‘flawed’. Men with eating disorders may feel stigmatised and ashamed of having a stereotypically perceived ‘female disorder’. The perceived stigma of beinga man with an eating disorder makes it more difficult for a man to admit to having an eating disorder and in reaching out for help. Men with eating disorders have long been suffering in silence, in what has been named an ‘invisible struggle’.

Men with eating disorders have been overlooked by mental health professionals as they are less likely to diagnose a man with an eating disorder or refer them to specialised eating disorders services (SLaM Media Release, 2010). Personal accounts of men with eating disorders frequently include stories of how health professionals failed to recognised their eating disorder and were instructed to either ‘just eat’, ‘go on a diet’ or ‘they are depressed’. John Morgan, a psychiatrist who specialises in eating disorders argues that men are ‘less likely to recognise their eating disorder, are more likely to be misdiagnosed with other mental health problems, are less likely to receive treatment and are less likely to be referred to specialist eating disorder services’ (2009).

Statistics show that eating disorders are most common in women but they are also present in men. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence reported that 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, of which 11% are male. Research studies suggest that 10-20% of cases of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are men and up to 40% of cases of binge eating disorder are men (Muise et al 2003). It is also believed that the actual numbers of men with eating disorders may be higher than the ones reported due to the fact that men are reluctant in seeking help for their eating disorder, they might not recognise or admit that they suffer from a ‘female disease’ and also health professionals might not readily recognise eating disorder symptoms in men.

Increase in awareness of male eating disorders

Overall, there is a general rise in the numbers of men who are suffering from eating disorders. However, it is questionable whether it is because truly there are more incidents of men suffering with eating disorders in more recent years or it is because of an increase in awareness in this area. Either way, there is a rise in the awareness of eating disorders in men as more men are coming forward in admitting to struggling with an eating disorder, seeking help and sharing their experiences. Also the media is increasingly addressing men’s problems with eating disorders, for example, ‘Binge eating among men steps out of the shadows’ (New York Times, 2012); ‘The secret world of male anorexia’ (The Guardian, 2012); ‘Rise in men suffering from eating disorders’ (BBC News, 2011). Charities are also working towards raising awareness in eating disorders and men, for example ‘Men Get Eating Disorders Too’, ‘No Bodies Perfect’, B-eat, SWEDA and SRSH, a few blogs e.g. ‘Sleepless in Newcastle’, ‘Until eating disorders are no more’ and Facebook pages ‘Binge Eating Disorder and Men’.

The ideal body image differs between men and women, in what has been termed as ‘thinness vs masculinity’ where women strive to achieve a thin body image ideal and men strive to achieve a muscular body image ideal. The issue of masculinity is very prominent to ‘muscle dysmorphia’, where the individual is highly preoccupied with gaining muscularity without gaining fat. It is also come to be known as ‘bigorexia’ or ‘reverse anorexia’ a condition which is more common in men than in women.

Even though eating disorders is a well researched area, it is mainly research conducted on women and not men. Recently there has been a shift as more research studies are published on the issue of men and eating disorders and this issue is receiving a more widely media coverage.

More research and awareness is needed in the area of men and eating disorders for mental health professionals to be better able to provide specifically tailored treatments for the needs of men with eating disorders. With raising awareness, more men will feel better understood and better able to speak up about their own struggles and experiences and seek treatment for their eating disorder to finally put an end to what has long been and hopefully will no longer be an ‘invisible struggle’.

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