Suffering in Silence: Understanding Eating Disorders in Men

Eating disorders have been known to primarily effect women. Adolescent girls and young adult women tend to be the focus whenever they are discussed. At first, the assumption may seem to make sense. Statistically, young women make up the majority of those struggling with ED however, this often overlooks the less obvious sufferers: eating disorders in men.

Eating disorders are not unique to women. Of the estimated 30 million Americans who struggle with an ED, 20 million are women. The remaining 10 million are men. Experts also suggest that this number may be even higher with the condition is often underreported and underdiagnosed in men.

If men account for at least 1 out of every 3 people with an eating disorder, why do they continue to suffer in silence? There’s a disconnect between one’s ideas about the disorder and the reality of it. Though men are far less likely than women to indicate signs of an ED, learning to recognize the shared struggle will help.

Differences Between Eating Disorders in Men and Women

Most people associate eating disorders with the way they’re portrayed in the media. The idea that disordered eating only affects thin people is one reason eating disorders in men go largely unnoticed. There are some differences between the ways eating disorders manifest in men compared to women.

Women are typically consumed by the desire to be thin. Both anorexia and bulimia center around the pursuit of thinness. Men, on the other hand, strive for a different idea of thin. They’re more concerned with building a muscular physique, then maintaining a level of leanness that shows it off.

This similar-but-opposite experience of ED is sometimes called “reverse anorexia” or “bigorexia”. As clinical psychologist Douglas Bunnell, an expert on eating disorders, explains, “These boys have all the psychological features of anorexia, except they’re pushing it in the opposite direction.”

Why Men Develop Eating Disorders

There’s no shortage of people pointing out the pressure placed on women to be thin, often blaming falsely-idyllic social media feeds. What about the pressure placed on men to build a physique like that of a movie star? This leads men down a dangerous path of disordered eating, excessive exercise, and even drug use in pursuit of the “ideal” physique.

Society associates lean muscularity with beauty, success, popularity, and happiness. But it’s easier for people to overlook a man’s eating disorder in his pursuit of this ideal. Exercise, even excessive exercise, is praised among men. The “gym bro” diet, though often joked about, is seen as an acceptable part of a “healthy” lifestyle.

Research suggests the causes of eating disorders in men are like those in women: a mix of genetic predisposition, environment, and development. Societal messaging promotes the idea that “six-pack abs” are the ultimate goal. Movies and video games back this up. Even children’s toys contribute to the idea. While Barbie dolls are thought to set an unrealistic idea for young women, the excessive muscularity of action figures does the same for young men.

Signs of an Eating Disorder for Men

Noticing the signs of an eating disorder in men can be complicated. Not all men who are committed to exercising and eating clean practice disordered eating behaviors. There is a point where some cross the line into the point of needing help, though. Some signs of a potential eating disorder in men include:

  • Excessive rigidity with eating behaviors
  • Avoiding social gatherings that involve food
  • Refusing to eat certain types of foods or food groups
  • Practicing unusual eating behaviors, such as cutting food into tiny pieces
  • Compulsively checking nutrition information, logging calories and/or macronutrient cycling
  • Obsessively weighing himself or checking on his physical appearance
  • Spending excessive focus and time on exercising

Seeking Help for Men with an Eating Disorder

Although they aren’t as likely to seek help, treatment is available for men with an eating disorder. Studies imply the mortality risk associated with ED, as well as other long-term health risks surrounding these behaviors, is higher for males than females. Seeking treatment is crucial if men want to avoid the dangers that come with eating disorders.

Increasing awareness and understanding of eating disorders in men is imperative. Until more people realize the extent of the problem, that men struggle too, they’ll continue to avoid seeking help. If you have a loved one struggling with an eating disorder, stepping up to support them is the most important thing you can do.

Seek out a treatment facility like Toledo Center who understands the complexities of treating eating disorders in men. Helping them get past the stigma and understand you’re there to support them might not be easy, but it will be worth it. Reach out to us today to learn more about the programs Toledo Center offers. We’re here to walk you and your loved one through the process every step of the way.