Eating Disorders in Men Ignored

Eating Disorders

Men with an eating disorder are not getting the help they need. Symptoms in young men are being ignored because of a perception that eating disorders are a “women’s illness.”

Men are under-diagnosed and under-treated for eating disorders, despite making up about 25 percent of cases, a recent United Kingdom study suggests. University of Oxford and University of Glasgow researchers interviewed 39 people aged 16 to 25, including 10 men, about their personal experiences with the diagnosis, treatment and support for eating disorders. They found that young men with eating disorders were undertreated. Partly, this is because the men themselves were unaware that their symptoms, such as purging, not eating for days, over-exercising, using steroids, obsessively counting calories or even binge eating, indicated a possible eating disorder, according to the interviews. They may be aware of the symptoms in women, but do not see it in themselves based on the belief that men do not get eating disorders.

The researchers note that findings suggest that men ignored symptoms and did not seek help because of the continuing perception that eating disorders as predominantly a female problem. Health care personnel need to get better at looking for possible eating disorders in men.

Body Image Affects Men Too

The image issues leading to eating disorders are generally similar in men and women. Men are under pressure to have the “ideal” body image thanks to onscreen chiseled bodies. For example, in the movie 300: Rise of an Empire, the Greeks’ sweaty, washboard abs probably left more impressions on viewers than the violence. The superhero movies like Thor, Green Lantern and Captain America also show fabulous physiques. Several movie stars, young and older, have perfectly chiseled bodies that are displayed shirtless in many of their movies. They include Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Daniel Craig, Ryan Reynolds and countless others. Men are reportedly feeling increased pressure to add muscle mass and work on their own physiques without recognizing that those superstar six packs and shoulders often take six months of extensive personal training, customized meals, and determination – and a big paycheck.

The average male wants to gain 15-27 more pounds of muscle and decrease body fat by 3 to 4 percent . A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in January found that 18 percent of boys are concerned about their physique and weight. Though 15 percent of the boys studied were worried about thinness, about 50 percent were concerned with gaining more muscle. One-third of those studied were concerned with both. The research also found that a failure to attain what may be unrealistic body image goals can lead to depression, risky behaviors like drinking and drugs, as well as eating disorders.

Much as people with anorexia see themselves as fatter than others see them, men may have a disorder called muscle dysmorphia, which is characterized by an extreme fixation with becoming more muscular. Some boys with muscle dysmorphia see themselves as smaller than they really are and want to bulk up. In fact, studies have shown then 25 percent of men who are at a normal weight think they are underweight. This can lead to use of steroids or other dangerous substances to increase their muscle mass.

Eating disorders are complex. A wide range of factors play into them, including genetics, their environment as well as cultural pressures. However, creating a greater awareness that eating disorders affect men too might help symptoms being recognized and not ignored.

By Dyanne Weiss


National Institute of Mental Health
JAMA Pediatrics