Understanding men with eating disorders
Sadly, due to the lack of information and compassionate care options around men getting treatment for eating disorders, many men leave their disorders undiagnosed and untreated. Men may attempt to seek out help or an understanding of their eating patterns only to find that most of the studies and literature are based around female bodies.
The truth is that men face unique challenges around body shape and size rooted in societal expectations of what their gender “should” look like, and therefore men require specialized care to unlearn those beliefs. Care for disordered eating in men should be built to address the specific barriers they face.
Stats & trends in men with eating disorders
Often, men with eating disorders hide their condition out of fear of social stigmas associated with disordered eating, but that doesn’t mean they are any less severe. In a ten-year period (from 1999-2009), men with eating disorders were hospitalized 53% more than in the previous decade. (7)
Men represent 25% of those struggling with anorexia nervosa and are at a higher risk of death because they are unlikely to receive treatment. (2) Gay men face an even higher rate of eating disorders than their heteronormative peers, with 15% of gay men and 5% of straight men admitting to having an eating disorder. It is also estimated that 2% of men will have binge eating disorder, and even more will struggle with binge eating behaviors, over the course of their lifetime. (8)
Men eating disorder signs & symptoms
Eating disorders are, fundamentally, highly personalized, and exist irrespective of gender. As such, there are many similarities that may be generalized between sexes, though not all signs or symptoms will be present in each person. Both men and women will strive to lose weight in an attempt to be thinner, with others focusing more on gaining muscle mass, which requires weight gain. Men are not exempt from the consequences of dieting, and as dieting and diet-culture become more and more normative across genders, so does the experience of all forms of eating disorders.
Besides the secretive behavior, men struggling with an eating disorder will often display the following emotional and behavioral signs and symptoms: (3)
- Constant or recurrent dieting or restrictive food choices
- Compulsive exercising
- Preoccupation with weight and appearance
- Severe dissatisfaction with body image
- Extreme fear of weight gain
- A feeling of loss of control about food
- Avoiding group activities involving food
- Sensitive to discussing food, body size, and shape
- Refusal to eat certain foods
There are also physical symptoms men will display due to an eating disorder: (4)
- Observable fluctuations in weight, both up and down
- Stomach cramps
- Gastrointestinal issues (such as acid reflux, constipation)
- Problems concentrating
- Laboratory results that are not normal (anemia, low potassium levels, low thyroid and hormone levels, low blood cell counts)
- Fatigue, fainting, dizziness
- Constant cold
- Difficulties sleeping
- Cuts and calluses on finger joints (due to inducing vomiting)
- Dental problems
- Dry skin and hair
- Brittle nails
- Swelling near the salivary glands
- Fine hair on the body (lanugo)
- Cavities, or teeth discoloration, from vomiting
- Muscle weakness
- Cold, mottled hands and feet or swelling of extremities
- Poor wound healing
- Weakened immune system
Treating men with eating disorders
There needs to be a greater effort across the board in making treatment programs inclusive, including the establishment of treatment centers focused specifically on caring for men with disordered eating. Men can feel stigmatized or misunderstood attending programs designed for women, or at attending treatment programs that are largely comprised of female patients. (1)
Men are often ashamed to admit they have an eating disorder. The biggest challenge in assessing them for treatment is getting men to open up about their issues with food or weight. (2) It is vital to address the hesitation, fear and shame that men may experience about having an eating disorder, tied to presumptions that eating disorders can and should only occur in women. This includes an understanding that men may feel that experiencing an eating disorder is a risk to their own identity and sense of masculinity. These internal experiences in and of themselves are vital to address in order to open up the pathway toward healing.
Treatment for eating disorders is a combined process that involves psychological therapies, nutritional counseling, medical guidance and psychiatric assessment and treatment. Other interventions, such as mental illness screenings and malnutrition education, are also critical in treating eating disorders in men. Treatment may also involve mindfulness and learning to cope with interpersonal relationships with family members who may not understand what you're going through. (5)
Factors that drive men’s eating disorders include an unrealistic idea about weight and body image. This is partly due to societal expectations, which causes many men to feel like their body is not good enough. (6) Diet culture in and of itself can lead to restrictive patterns of nutrition intake, which can set off patterns of eating that can interfere with a person meeting their own nutrition needs, placing the person at even greater risk for the development of eating disorders.
How men cope with an eating disorder
One of the issues surrounding men who struggle with eating disorders is that their disordered eating behaviors are more likely to go unnoticed and untreated. They may not reflect on their eating patterns, or recognize them as being suggestive of an eating disorder experience.
Treatment allows men to find the support they need to begin the healing process and sustain long-term recovery. However, it is important to remember that eating disorder treatment is way more than simply developing coping skills. Careful time should be put into working with a therapist, nutritionist, and any required medical healthcare providers, to allow for a better chance at healing.
Peer support is another exceptional treatment modality for men, in conjunction with an overall comprehensive eating disorder treatment program. Being open around friends and others with similar experiences helps build camaraderie, accountability, mutual support and a sense of connection and belonging.
Helping men with eating disorders
If you know someone in your life who is struggling with disordered eating, a meaningful way to support them is by providing kindness and compassion for what they are going through. Try to understand their journey, and how you can be an ally to them during their care and recovery.
As part of understanding the someone’s experience with eating disorders, it may be beneficial to spend time educating yourself around the circumstances they are experiencing, as well as eating disorders in general. Ask your loved one about a good opportunity to share time together and begin to express concerns about the person's struggle in a non-judgmental manner.
It is not easy for a person struggling with an eating disorder to talk about their condition. Therefore, friends and family members of men struggling with an eating disorder need to be as compassionate as possible. Some men may not want to disclose or talk about their eating habits, so being gentle and respectful of their wishes in your discussions will go a long way.
As critical as it is to know what to do, a person also needs to know what to avoid when approaching someone with an eating disorder:
- Avoid ultimatums
- Do not comment on their weight or appearance
- Be careful not to shame or blame them
- Do not oversimplify the solution
- Help them understand that eating disorders impact all genders and none is less worthy of care
- Remind them that the medical and psychological consequences of eating disorders are both profound and real, regardless of gender
- Convey the reality that eating disorders do not correlate with gender, masculinity or femininity.
- Do not offer solutions—offer treatment instead
Friends and family members of those suffering from an eating disorder should take special care to get help for their loved one. Try not to be confrontational in your approach with someone with an eating disorder. Finding shared values between you and your loved one and a shared understanding of the person’s experience, can help the person experiencing an eating disorder become more open to receiving care.
Within Health offers inclusive eating disorder programs built specifically for men. Call our clinical care team now if you or someone you love would like to learn more about our virtual care program for eating disorders.