We don’t often think about males when we hear the term eating disorder. In fact, when we think about who is impacted by an eating disorder, the first image that often comes to mind is a low-weight female, possibly suffering from anorexia. And while the rates of eating disorders in women is staggering, there is another population in desperate need of our attention when it comes to awareness, prevention and treatment.
That’s why this year’s the National Eating Disorders Association Awareness Week’s theme, “It’s time to talk about it”, is so important. The annual awareness week, slated for February 26th to March 4th, was created to shine the spotlight on eating disorders and put life-saving resources into the hands of those in need. The prevalence of males with eating disorders is on the rise and it’s time we break down the barriers, erase the stigma, and start talking about the real issues males with eating disorders face.
Males and eating disorders
One in four individuals with an eating disorder is male and men engage in eating-disordered behaviors nearly as often as women. Ten million American men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder (of which an equal number of males and females suffer from), or OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder).
The prevalence of eating disorders in males is greater than estimated because men are often too stigmatized to seek treatment for what so many people call “women’s problems.” The cultural stigma that is attached to males who struggles with body image and/or nutritional status is very real. The belief that eating disorders are a “female problem,” can be devastating to a man and negatively impact his willingness to seek help.
And rates of body dissatisfaction in males are rapidly approaching that of females. But for males, body dissatisfaction is more commonly manifested as the pursuit of a muscular, lean physique rather than a low bodyweight. Muscle dysmorphia is a recent psychiatric condition, which is most centrally characterized by an intense fear that one is insufficiently muscular, and an excessive drive to enhance the visible appearance of muscularity.
So what typically could be seen as someone who is extremely fit and consequently praised for their hard work, may actually be the making of a serious eating disorder. According to Andrew Walen, Founder and CEO of Body Image Therapy Center and the President of The National Association of Males with Eating Disorders, one of the biggest issues when it comes to treating a male with an eating disorder is we often don’t see them until much later in the disease. “With females, it is typically visibly recognizable (think anorexia) and they are the ones we see most often,” says Walen. “We don’t see males until much later than their female counterpart because they wait so long to ask for help.”
The stigma and lack of resources tops the list of reasons why males don’t seek help, but there is also another reason their disorder remains a secret: Their behaviors may be explained away or hidden altogether and they many not even realize their thoughts and behaviors point directly to an eating disorder. Men with anorexia or bulimia could easily spend hours exercising in a desperate attempt to achieve ultra low body fat percentages and lean muscle mass. Similarly, men with binge eating disorder may find themselves consuming large amounts of calories at one setting, but those episodes might be considered culturally appropriate for a male.
Help for males with an eating disorder
There’s a significant need to bring more awareness to the lack of treatment options for males with eating disorders. Men (and the people who care about them) are desperate for help, but so few options currently exist for this growing population. “As President of The National Association of Males with Eating Disorders (NAMED), I see requests from parents all the time asking where they can get their sons help and partners asking for their boyfriend,” Walen says.
One of the first steps to increasing treatment options for males is recognizing that identifying and treating males looks much different than treating females. And acknowledging that a gender-sensitive approach with recognition of different needs and dynamics for males is critical for an effective treatment program. We are still years away from adequate treatment options for males, but until then, people like Walen are working tirelessly to help make changes and provide support and services to those in need. He has identified four areas of focus for males (and their families) who are impacted by an eating disorder.
Recognize a problem exists and ask for help. “It’s a brave step for men to share their story,” says Walen. Recognizing they have an eating disorder, is the first step to recovery. “They have to go ask for help, and in our society there is nothing more ‘anti-male’ that asking for help,” says Walen. “You have to find the courage and be able to say to someone who loves you: ‘Can you get me some help.’”
Know the resources available. Most treatment programs have been designed for and filled with females, so knowing how to find resources directed specifically at males is critical. The National Eating Disorders Association website has a treatment finder section which allows users to narrow their search to look for therapists and programs that specialize in males. Additionally, there are several books written on males and eating disorders discussed on the NAMED website including: Man Up to Eating Disorders, by Andrew Walen.
Learn about the unique challenges males face. Identifying and treating males is a complex process and understanding the unique challenges males face is key to recovery. The National Association for Males with Eating Disorders is a great place to start. The purpose of their website is to be a central location for all information regarding males and eating disorders and to help people understand, share personal stories, and hopefully feel normalized.
Get ready to work hard. “This is a biological, psychological and environmental disease,” says Walen. Considering eating disorders are the most deadly of all mental illnesses and the relapse rates are much higher in males, it’s easy to see why a high level of commitment and hard work is needed to identify and treat this deadly disease.
Image: Bill Strain, CC-BY
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, and wellness.