Many people associate eating disorders with being a “female-only problem.” It’s not. Men also suffer from eating disorders and struggle with the side effects of the illness. We just don’t hear about men having eating disorders as often as we do women.
Because of the gender bias and social stigma attached to the disease, it’s hard to calculate the incidence of eating disorders in males. The signs and symptoms are generally the same, and the side effects they experience are comparable. However, one big difference is that male patients tend to develop eating disorders at an older age, such as in their later teens. They also tend to have a history of being overweight or obese. Additionally, rather than attaining “thinness,” the goal for men is often to be lean and muscular.
Some argue that due to the gender bias, men may feel increased shame and guilt for developing a disease that’s only supposed to affect their mothers, sisters, daughters and female friends. This stigma can be strong and has unfortunately deterred many men from coming forward and getting proper treatment. Additionally, many of the treatment centers for eating disorders are geared towards female patients, leaving male patients to feel out of place. Moreover, many of these centers may not even admit male patients, once again sending the message that eating disorders are a “female disease.”
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As such, we need to develop a more gender-sensitive approach to treating eating disorders. Males suffer from eating disorder-type behaviors almost at the same rate as females. In fact, subclinical eating disorder-related behaviors, such as restricting food intake in order to lose weight, purging, binge eating and laxative misuse, are nearly as common among males as they are among females.
In addition to eating disorders, men also suffer from muscle dysmorphic disorder, a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder more commonly known as “bigorexia.” This is when individuals obsess and constantly worry about having a “perfect physique” and believe their muscles are inadequate. They fear that their muscle tone is too small and underdeveloped and/or that they are underweight when, in fact, they actually have large muscle mass and are not underdeveloped at all. This obsession with musculature can lead to a series of compulsions including spending long hours in the gym, abnormal eating patterns, abuse and misuse of steroids and other supplements to help men “bulk up.” Not to mention it can lead to spending excessive amounts of money on supplements and/or steroids, even in cases when they can’t actually afford to do so.
Overall, the takeaway is that men are just at risk as females of developing eating disorders, too. As a society, we need to increase awareness of this and end the stigma by understanding that eating disorders don’t discriminate. Eating disorders are as blind to gender as they are to race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Dr. Ingrid Barrera is the director of the Eating Disorders Program within the University Of Miami Department Of Psychiatry. She is also an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University Of Miami Miller School Of Medicine. For more information, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry or call 305-355-9028.