“I was aware of eating disorders due to media coverage, but they're usually presented as female problems so I never made the connection with myself. Looking back, I can see that I had behaviors associated with an eating disorder from my late teens but I never considered I might have an eating disorder until my quality of life began to diminish. I was obsessed with food. I counted calories constantly. Anxiety defined my daily existence. I was paralyzed emotionally and socially. It was hard for me, but I finally realized that I had an eating disorder."
These are the words of a man who struggled for years with an eating disorder before having the courage to seek help and recovery.
Although eating disorders occur mostly in women, men are not immune. The problem is becoming more common as social pressures surrounding body image are increasingly affecting both women and men.
Men often experience the same symptoms as women, such as preoccupation with weight and size, body image distortion, severe restriction of food, purging, compulsive eating and bingeing. People with eating disorders may appear to be at a healthy weight. They also can be emaciated or obese.
These eating disorders that afflict women can also present in men:
Anorexia: Primary symptoms are excessive food restriction, severe body size distortion and severe weight loss.
Bulimia: Primary symptoms are frequent episodes of loss of control through food binges, followed by some form of purging to prevent weight gain. This can be vomiting, taking laxatives, diuretics and/or exercising excessively.
Binge eating: Primary symptom is frequent excessive eating without purging.
Triggers can vary
While women often attribute their eating problems to social pressures, men with eating disorders often report that their problem started after involvement in sports with weight restrictions, such as wrestling, boxing or being a jockey. Bingeing and purging are often used by males in these sports "to make weight."
Men with eating disorders frequently have a history of obesity and being bullied in school. Such men may lose weight to escape emotional turmoil, but, under such strain, may go on to develop an eating disorder.
It's difficult to know how many men today struggle with eating disorders, because men are less likely to seek help than women. This may be for a number of reasons:
• Shame. Men who recognize they have an eating disorder feel particularly different since their cases are unusual.
• Anorexic men often are regarded simply as "really skinny guys," rather than people who should be encouraged to seek help.
• Most bulimics (male or female) aren't obese or emaciated so their disorder isn't as obvious as it is with anorexics or obese binge eaters. In addition, the bulimic gets adept at hiding purging and bingeing.
• Although this has been changing, it's still true that most people are more tolerant of obesity in men than women. In addition, a man who eats large quantities of food in front of others might just be seen as a "big eater," while a woman with a similar appetite is more likely to be judged negatively.
• A man with food issues is likely to feel his problem is self-discipline, rather than an eating disorder. He thinks he should be able to control his eating on his own rather than seeking help to break the cycle of bingeing and dieting.
It's important for society to recognize that eating disorders affect both sexes, and the suffering is the same. By the same token, men with eating disorders need to allow themselves to seek information and help without feeling shame so they, too, can get the benefits of recovery that exist today.
For more information on eating disorders in men and boys, go to www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.
Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. She can be contacted through her website, www.FatMatters.com, or at (813) 240-9557.