Eating Disorders and Males: Understanding the Problem

While eating disorders are typically associated with young women, you may be surprised to learn that a growing number of individuals with eating disorders today are young men.

Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Males

Approximately 10% of individuals seeking treatment for eating disorders are male, although a larger number fails to seek treatment.  The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that about 10 million U.S. males  will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives – about one third of the total of 30 million individuals facing this illness.

While males are more reluctant to seek treatment, the number getting help is growing.  One recent estimate: the number of males hospitalized for an eating disorder has risen more than 50% over the past decade. This increase may be due to greater willingness to report a problem, but may also represent a larger number of males who develop eating disorders.

Types of Eating Disorders in Males

Boys and men suffer from the same types of eating disorders as females, as well as one type less common in girls or women.  Disorders include:

  • Binge eating disorder.  Characterized by episodes of compulsive or “binge” eating, this disorder is the most common type of eating disorder among males.
  • Bulimia nervosa.  Characterized by binge eating, followed by one or more purging methods (vomiting, laxatives, excessive exercise, etc.), this disorder represents an attempt to avoid weight gain after over-eating.
  • Anorexia nervosa.  Characterized by a refusal to maintain normal body weight and an intense fear of gaining weight, along with severe body image distortion, this disorder causes individuals to literally starve themselves.
  • Muscle dysmorphia.  Characterized by an extreme desire to become more muscular, this disorder is primarily associated with males.  Some individuals with this disorder want to “bulk up” to gain body mass, while others try to lose weight to reduce their percentage of body fat vs. muscle.  Excessive steroid use is often associated with this disorder.

Treatment Issues for Males

Many treatment issues are similar for all individuals, regardless of gender, such as problems with body image and self-esteem or a need to exert control in one’s life, albeit in a dysfunctional manner.

However, males may also face special issues in treatment, such as:

  • Increased stigma.  Because eating disorders are so closely associated with young women, males may be subject to ridicule by their peers, or may fear discovery of their problem.  Such factors decrease the likelihood of males seeking treatment.
  • Severity of the disorder.  Because young men are less comfortable seeking treatment and less likely to be identified by others as having a problem, their cases may be particularly severe by the time they do finally seek help.
  • Issues with sexuality.  Approximately 42% of males with eating disorders also identify themselves as being gay.  Does the emphasis on physical fitness and lean musculature in parts of the gay culture and media make young gay men more vulnerable to the development of eating disorders? Mental health professionals aren’t certain, but must be prepared to address issues of sexuality with young male patients.

Treatment can as beneficial for males as females, once they seek help in a program that is sensitive to their specific needs.  Common treatments include medication, such as antidepressants, and psychotherapy – often cognitive or behavioral therapies. Treatment is frequently most effective with peers in a group setting, with the level of treatment needed based upon the severity of the condition.

Early identification of eating disorders in males is the key to the best recovery.

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