‘Men have eating disorders too’
13th May, 2008
‘Men have eating disorders too’ is a statement that is now heard more often when eating disorders are mentioned.
The men and boys that suffer with eating disorders are real people rather than a theoretical minority within the eating disordered population. Often the casual recognition of the possibility that a small number of males might struggle with an eating disorder does nothing to dispel the illusion that eating disorders are a female illness.
Things are improving and over the years books about eating disorders have begun to move from the Women’s Health sections of bookshops to the General Health ones. More stories and articles about eating disorders from a male perspective are appearing in literature and the press.
It is true that males with eating disorders struggle with many, if not all, of the issues that females do and respond equally well to the same types of treatments and approaches to recovery if (and this is central to males with eating disorders) they feel able to admit to their “female illness” and seek help.
Men and boys do suffer from eating disorders and recognizing this is vitally important but what also must be recognized and addressed are the isolation and difficulties that might prevent a man or boy from accepting his problem and seeking the help that, were he to take it up, would offer the same chance of recovery and route to well-being that it would his female counterpart.
Like much in the field of eating disorders, its prevalence in males is unclear. The Eating Disorders Association has done research, which suggests that 10% of eating disorders sufferers are male. The American Journal of Psychiatry (April 2001, 158-570) quotes rather higher figures suggesting that for every 4 female anorexics there will be 1 male and that there will be 1 male for every 8-11 female bulimics. Neither figures include Binge Eating Disorder and some research suggests that equal numbers of males and females experience this! Whatever the actual figure, it is clear that a significant number of men and boys struggle with an eating disorder and it is presumed that many more go unnoticed, as they feel unable to seek help.
Comparatively little research has been done into males with eating disorders but it does seem apparent that many of the risk factors that exist for women are equally applicable in men. In particular the role of an eating disorder as a coping mechanism for, and expression of, underlying emotional distress is just as relevant in males as it is in females and consequently the presence of such unresolved distress in males presents a significant risk factor, as it does in females.
In addition it is thought that males may be susceptible to a range of other risks, many of which have parallels for females. For example it is believed that men who engage in sports that demand thinness or have weight categories may be more at risk of developing an eating disorder than those who do not. It is also believed that there are higher incidences of eating disorders, than that which is found in the general population, in men with careers that demand thinness or conformity to a physical ideal - for example, male models or dancers.
There is also evidence that men who were considered overweight as children may be at increased risk of developing an eating disorder.
Once society educates themselves and discovers what eating disorders really are and why someone may develop one, they will have no trouble accepting that men can suffer from one too. If you are a male who is suffering with an eating disorder, I would urge you to seek help. There is no shame in having an eating disorder and there is help available.
How can family and friends help?
It can be upsetting to witness loved ones putting their health and lives in jeopardy. As a member of the family or as a friend, it is natural to want to help. But unwanted pressure or criticism from others usually makes matters worse. If possible, accept their behaviour instead of confronting them with it. Unless it’s a life-threatening situation, try to let the person make his or her own choices and let the person know that unconditional love and support is consistently there. Once the person has recognised the problem, offer to help with practical matters such as finding medical assistance, self-help groups and other resources that may be needed to do battle with the eating disorder.
Is it possible to get over an eating disorder?
Yes. It can be a long and difficult process. Sufferers may need to have psychotherapy for months or years, and relapses can occur in times of stress. Approximately 50% of people with anorexia who are treated in hospital continue to have symptoms for many years. An eating disorder is difficult to overcome, but with commitment, patience and support it can be done.
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