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Eating Disorders in Men

Most people think it is women who believe their bodies must look a certain way because of the body types portrayed on TV and by runway models, movie stars, magazines, coaches, parents, friends, classmates, heroes, and Barbie dolls. They think it is women who try to achieve these body types and may suffer from eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia nervosa, or binging.

And until recently, they were right. The majority of those seeking treatment for these disorders were women.

Not anymore. Boys and men have eating disorders, too.

It's becoming more acceptable for men to seek help because an eating disorder is normal and not so much of a label anymore. So men are coming out and saying they have it, whereas before they hadn't been open to seeking treatment.

Certain athletes at risk

Institutions such as the National Eating Disorders Association have noted a rise recently in male athletes reporting eating disorders. Wrestlers, for instance, are constantly told they need to eat less to achieve a lower weight class.

Bodybuilders are told to eat much more to achieve muscle mass. Swimmers and cross-country runners may be told to undergo extreme eating or dieting to achieve a certain body mass.

Dietitians and therapists across the country have begun treating male sports figures seeking "the exaggerated buff look," teenagers seeking "the peer group look," gay men seeking "the thin, sexy look," middle-aged men seeking binge meals, and athletes trying to improve performance.

There's a lot more focus on men looking buff now—a real message being sent by media and models.

"Male bulimia" often centers on "exercise compulsion," which means that men may exercise compulsively as a means for purging or weight control.

Trauma can trigger it

Psychological trauma or a life change also can spur eating disorders in boys and men.

If you think of the reasons people turn to alcohol or drugs, eating disorders are very similar. We often see, with young women and men, that they are simply going through adjustments, like puberty, and it scares them. Or they may not have healthy communication in the family, or there may be an unhealthy focus on weight in the family because one or both of the parents has had medical problems.

Among young adults with an eating disorder, males are more likely than females to conceal their illness. That means the incidence among young males may be underreported.

Seeking help

Most males with eating disorders find a cure by themselves or with therapists; however, some succumb to it.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate because of what it physically does to the body—malnutrition. Heart tissue cannibalizes itself. The most common occurrence is a heart attack.

Even though most treatment centers largely focus on helping women with eating disorders, many are now opening their doors to helping men. The treatment for men and women is virtually identical.

Treating men is the same as treating women. The dietitian works on nutrition by increasing food intake if the person is anorexic. The therapist does psychosocial therapy, working on the core triggers at the psychological level.

The treatment of male eating disorders has become so common that facilities are being devoted to help men only.

Anorexia

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.

These are symptoms of anorexia:

  • Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type, age, and activity level

  • Intense fear of weight gain or being "fat"

  • Feeling "fat" or overweight despite dramatic weight loss

  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

  • Orthopedic problems, particularly in dancers and athletes, because of compulsive exercising, coupled with emaciation

  • Refusal to eat in front of others

  • Ritualistic eating, including cutting food into small pieces

  • Hypersensitivity to cold

  • Yellowish skin, especially on the palms of hands and soles of feet; this comes from consuming too many vegetables rich in vitamin A

  • Dry skin

  • Thin scalp hair

  • Feet and hands that are cold or sometimes swollen

  • Stomach that is distressed and bloated after eating

  • Confused or slowed thinking; an anorexic patient may have poor memory and lack of judgment

Bulimia

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a secretive cycle of binge eating followed by purging. Bulimia includes eating large amounts of food—more than most people would eat in one meal—in short periods of time, then getting rid of the food and calories through vomiting, laxative abuse or overexercising.

These are symptoms of bulimia:

  • Repeated episodes of binging and purging

  • Feeling out of control during a binge and eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness

  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

  • Evidence, such as discarded packaging, laxatives, diet pills, emetics (drugs that induce vomiting), or diuretics (medications that reduce fluids)

  • Regularly going to the bathroom immediately after meals

  • Suddenly eating large amounts of food or buying large quantities that disappear right away

  • Compulsive exercising

  • Broken blood vessels in the eyes, from the strain of vomiting

  • Swollen salivary glands, which appear as pouch-like areas below the corners of the mouth; these occur within days of vomiting in about 8 percent of people with bulimia

  • Cavities, diseased gums, and irreversible enamel erosion on teeth from excessive stomach acid

  • Rashes and pimples

  • Small cuts and calluses across the tops of finger joints, caused by repeated self-induced vomiting, in which a person thrusts the hand down the throat past the front teeth

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder, also known as compulsive overeating, is characterized primarily by periods of uncontrolled, impulsive or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. Although there is no purging, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets and often feelings of shame or self-hatred after a binge. People who overeat compulsively may struggle with anxiety, depression, and loneliness, which can contribute to their unhealthy episodes of binge eating. Body weight may vary from normal to mild, moderate, or severe obesity.

Other eating disorders can include some combination of the signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, and/or binge eating disorder. Although these behaviors may not be clinically considered a full syndrome eating disorder, they can still be physically dangerous and emotionally draining. All eating disorders require professional help.

Online Medical Reviewer: Nelson, Gail A., MS, APRN, BC
Online Medical Reviewer: newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 9/8/2013
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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