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Eating Disorders and Men

Although it isn't as widely known or talked about, men are also susceptible to disordered eating and body image.

A Few Facts

  • 1-5% of all men have seriously unhealthy eating behaviors that would qualify as eating disorders. That's several million in the entire USA and several hundred here at B.C.
  • 10-15% of people with eating disorders are male.

Of men with eating disorders:

  • 79-83% have binge eating disorder, described as impulsive gorging or continuous eating;
  • 10-13% have bulimia, described as binge eating and then purging by use of self-induced vomiting, laxatives, prolonged fasting and excessive exercise; and
  • 4-6% have anorexia, described as self-starving and, even if extremely underweight, having a distorted image of their bodies as fat.

So it's a guy thing too
Probably more guys than most people think have some form of eating disorder.

How does it show?
With men, it often shows up at the gym. There are men who are athletic types, who don't eat much, but exercise a lot. They may be very intent on molding their bodies into a certain bulk or musculature. Or guys who start off having a "good" reason to be dieting (eg, wrestlers), but who end up with eating patterns so out of whack that they are basically bingeing and purging their way between meets in an attempt to "make weight". Some guys compulsively run long distances to the point that they are just muscle and bone, and look frankly skeletal.

Some men binge eat, or eat compulsively ("all the time"), or at the other extreme, some restrict their food intake to the point of starvation. There are also guys who vomit to get rid of what they have ingested, but make excuses for their behavior that at first may seem plausible. Often, like many women with disordered eating, men hide what they are doing so well that their disorder is camouflaged, and peers or family members aren't aware of the extent of their difficulties. Because eating disorders are so associated with females, there is both an extra stigma and an extra denial that comes into play regarding men whose eating and body image are disturbed. This makes it harder to see eating disorders in men-but all the more important to acknowledge.

Men are subject to cultural messages
Men are understandably affected by society's messages about the importance of their physical appearance. Whole magazines, fashion, hair and cosmetic industries devoted to making men "look good" have developed in recent years. The trim and buff aesthetic for men has subtly infected our culture through billboards, ads that get played during the commercial breaks on televised games-it's everywhere. Just like women, men internalize all the messages out there, and then hold themselves to unrealistic standards. Guys can be very critical of themselves, saying things like: "You don't look good. You're out of shape. What a gut! That guy looks better. How can I get someone looking like this?" This negative self-talk, so influenced by cultural messages, can make men feel they need to change their appearance, setting them on the path to developing unhealthy eating or exercise habits.

What else is behind it?
Experience shows that men with eating disorders, like women with eating disorders, generally have low self-esteem or even self-loathing. They may hide it, but such strong negative feelings and attitudes toward one-self are very powerful and damaging nonetheless. In addition to this, an understanding of male psychology in today's culture gives us clues into what causes guys to develop eating disorders. Interviews with thousands of college men revealed that a large percentage of them:

  • Feel invulnerable (unrealistically so)
  • Or feel a need to conceal it when they do feel vulnerable
  • Know little about health issues
  • Are confused about their male peers
  • Find it hard to talk with peers about self-harmful, questionable behavior

What does this suggest?
It suggests that perhaps today's college men don't readily have ways of revealing their uncertainties and sensitivities, especially with their male peers, who could be their best sources of support and feedback. On top of that, it seems that today's college males are not getting all the information they could use-or maybe they're not asking the questions-with the result being that they remain confused or ignorant

What do you do about this?
If it's you, find someone to talk to who can give you accurate and objective information and guidance. A nutritionist and a physician would be a good place to start to get clear feedback and advice on how to be healthy and strong. Speaking with a professional counselor is also an important beginning. A professional counselor will have dealt with these kinds of issues with other men, and will be familiar with your concerns and what to do about them. And, you will be assured that whatever you say to a counselor will be kept private and protected by laws about confidentiality. See the Resources section of this web-site for additional resources you could access. There is a lot of help available out there-both at B.C. and off-campus.

If it's a male friend you want to help, approach him with your concern straightforwardly but in a non-threatening manner. He may have many reactions to this, both good and bad. See the "How to help a friend" advice piece in the Resources section of this web-site for many more specific pointers. You could also speak beforehand with somebody in the Counseling Services, to work out your best way of approaching your friend, and to have in your mind any suggestions you could give him about where to go for help.

 

 
Boston College Eating Awareness Team
Last Updated: January 28, 2002