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Understanding how Eating Disorders Affect Men

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/2/2011

Eating disorders among men are surprisingly common. Find out who gets them and why.

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    The Growing Problem of Eating Disorders Among Men

    Many people mistakenly believe that eating disorders are the exclusive domain of teenage girls - but eating disorders among men are, by no means, rare. Equally disturbing is the fact that men are less likely to seek treatment for their unhealthy, and potentially dangerous, eating habits. How common are eating disorders among men – and what causes a man to engage in unhealthy eating practices?

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    Eating Disorders among Men: Who Gets One?

    A 2007 Harvard Study dispelled the myth that eating disorders affect mostly young girls and women. They looked at 3,000 people with eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, and found a full 25% of those affected were men. The most common type of eating disorder among the men in this study was binge eating disorder, a condition characterized by eating large quantities of food at one setting - and feeling guilt and remorse afterwards. Unlike people suffering from bulimia, binge eaters don’t throw up their food - even after a binge.

    Eating disorders among men are more common among the homosexual population where there’s a greater emphasis on being slender. Some experts believe that the risk isn’t necessarily higher in this population, but they’re just more likely to seek treatment.

    Heterosexual men get it too, and eating disorders among athletic men is particularly common, especially in sports that have weight restrictions. This stems, at least partially, from a desire to be competitive in their sport. This obsessive focus can lead to other unhealthy behaviors such as overtraining, using dangerous diet supplements, and taking steroids.

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    Eating Disorders among Men: What Causes Them?

    Most experts believe that eating disorders in men have similar causes to those in women. A desire to meet society’s standard of thinness, for sports or for appearance, probably motivates many men with eating disorders to practice poor dietary habits. Men who have eating disorders may be focused not only on reducing body fat, but on building muscle - either to look better or to be more competitive in sports.

    Eating disorders are also more common in men who have problems dealing with stress and those who have a strong need to be in control of their life. Being able to control how they eat, gives them a sense of empowerment and control over their destiny. Many suffer from self-esteem problems and may have other psychological disorders such as anxiety or depression co-existing with their eating disorder. This makes treatment and recovery more difficult and challenging.

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    The Consequences of Eating Disorders among Men

    Eating disorders among men carry the same health risks as those in women, but men with eating disorders also have a higher risk of substance abuse problems such as with alcohol and drugs.

    One of the major problems among men with eating disorders is their reluctance to seek help for their problem. This may be why some turn to alcohol or drugs to ease their pain. As with women, it’s imperative that men get treatment for their problem - to avoid malnutrition and other health problems associated with eating disorders. Fortunately, eating disorders among men are being more widely recognized, making it easier for men to get the help they need – and the chance to make a full recovery.

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    References

    Hudson, James I. M.D., Sc.D., et al. The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry. February 2007.

    Journal of Men’s Health & Gender, 2 (2), 186-191.