The term eating disorder is commonly associated with younger women, even though research has shown that eating disorder symptoms and behaviors also occur in women over 50. However, this stereotype that eating disorders only appear in females is a misconception. Studies have shown that eating disorders do not discriminate, with males also suffering from this serious mental illness. Some studies have shown that males account for an estimated 5 to 15 percent of patients with anorexia or bulimia. Symptoms of binge eating disorder are displayed in 35% of males. In males, especially boys and young men, these illnesses create a distorted sense of body image. For males, this distortion is often in the form of muscle dysmorphia, a type of disorder characterized by an extreme concern with becoming more muscular.
What is muscle dysmorphia?
Muscle dysmorphia is not currently recognized as an eating disorder and is often considered to be a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that is sub categorized as a body dysmorphic disorder, which is an over-evaluation of an idealized body type, which fuels either a drive for leanness, muscle mass or both. For those with muscle dysmorphia, the goal is to lose weight or gain weight to “bulk up.” Muscle dysmorphia is often under-diagnosed because society at large encourages large, muscular bodies for men and boys and often views them as strong and attractive.
Individuals with muscle dysmorphia become preoccupied with developing muscle to achieve what they perceive as the perfect shape. However, it involves more than just being a bodybuilder. Males who believe they are physically too small may start using anabolic steroids or other dangerous substances in addition to weight lifting to increase their body’s muscle mass. Being lean and muscular is seen as a beneficial attribute for nearly all sports. In fact, in certain athletic activities such as wrestling and gymnastics, severe weight and eating control is almost encouraged.
It is not always easy to determine if someone is suffering from muscle dysmorphia, but there are some key warning signs (Mirror-Mirror):
- Preoccupation with the idea that their body is not lean or muscular enough
- Maintaining an extreme exercise program, usually including long hours of weight lifting
- Excessive dieting – rarely eating out because they are unable to control the food preparation
- Frequently giving up social activities or work obligations because of a compulsive need to maintain one’s workout and diet schedule
- Working out despite injury
- Preoccupation with looking at themselves in the mirror or avoiding looking in the mirror entirely
- Extreme anxiety in the case of missed workouts
- Excessive use of food supplements
Additionally, unlike many body builders, those with muscle dysmorphia will rarely show their bodies in public due to the perceived shame they feel about their shape.
One question to ask is whether the person with the potential eating disorder is prone to anxiety, depression and perfectionistic tendencies. Research shows that 29% of men with muscle dysmorphia have a history of anxiety disorders and another 59% have had some form of a mood disorder. Other warning signs include people who have been bullied, felt too skinny or have struggled with their weight. These are all contributing factors for boys to develop some type of eating disorder.
People should also consider their family’s personal history when considering whether someone is struggling with some form of muscle dysmorphia or related eating disorder. Risks are increased if there is a family history of eating disorder behaviors or anxiety issues.
What are the family norms surrounding food and body image?
Adults in a family are often the role models for their children. If discussions of weight and body shaming are frequent topics, kids will notice. From a mental health standpoint, the goal is to have a healthy sense of self and body. Excessive behaviors are usually a sign of a deeper issue. With this in mind, here are four warning signs to watch for in boys and young males:
- Engaging in extreme dieting
- Quickly losing or gaining body weight
- Obsessing over dieting
- Binge eating and vomiting
The presence of these behaviors could indicate that an eating disorder is developing. If this is the case, it is better for an individual to receive treatment as soon as possible. Earlier treatment has a better likelihood of success since these disordered behaviors will have less time to become entrenched habits.
The concern is not only for the boy’s emotional health, but also for his physical health. Good physical fitness is great, but obsessive behaviors and perfectionism are not. If all signs point to a problematic body image and the existence of an eating disorder, it is beneficial to see a mental health professional who specializes in treating these conditions. Sadly, this topic is rarely talked about among young males. There is still a stigma surrounding publicly discussing mental illness. An additional stigma exists since eating disorders are still seen as a women’s issue.
For additional questions about eating disorders in boys and young men, contact Toledo Center for Eating Disorders today or complete our contact form. We provide a full range of specialized treatment options for children (age 10+) and adults with a primary diagnosis of an eating disorder. We believe each person is unique, which is why we customize a treatment plan to meet the specific needs of our clients. We are your partner in finding freedom from your eating disorder.