When it comes to gender, eating disorders don’t discriminate. Historically thought of as ‘women’s illnesses’, eating disorders often go unrecognised or under-diagnosed in men. In reality, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses affecting both men and women.
Roughly a quarter of eating disorder sufferers are thought to be male, although this number could be higher given that men are less likely to seek treatment. This can lead to a vicious cycle where men are less likely to acknowledge their eating disorder because they anticipate feeling misunderstood by those closest to them. In turn, fewer men speak up because no men around them ‘appear’ to have eating disorders.
As a result men are likely to only get help when eating disorder symptoms are more deeply ingrained, and therefore harder to treat. This means doing your part to create an environment where men feel comfortable opening up is of the utmost importance for male health.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders come in many forms, and each person’s illness is unique. Formal diagnoses currently include - but are not limited to - binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa (more commonly known as bulimia and anorexia). These three diagnoses are broken down below.
It is important to note that many eating disorder patients will not fit neatly into one of these diagnoses, but that doesn’t mean their eating disorder is any less serious. It’s also common for patients to move from one eating disorder behaviour to another during their lifetime.
Binge eating disorder
Those suffering with binge eating disorder (an illness characterised by eating large quantities of food over a short period of time) make up the majority of eating disorder sufferers, with binge eating disorder thought to be as devastating in men as it is in women. Episodes of bingeing are very distressing for sufferers; they may experience a complete disconnect where they struggle to remember what they ate.
Bulimia is characterised by cycles of bingeing and purging. Purging is when a person tries to avoid putting on weight due to bingeing, and can manifest in many different forms. This cycle of bingeing and purging can be experienced by sufferers of anorexia as well. Some sufferers of bulimia may also engage in food restriction.
Anorexia (an illness marked by severe restriction of food intake) is arguably the most commonly discussed eating disorder in the media. It is important to note that the depictions of anorexia that you see in the media may not be what you see in your brother, your partner, your father, or your friend. In reality, 85% of eating disorder sufferers are not underweight, including some sufferers of anorexia.
What causes an eating disorder?
Eating disorders rarely have a single cause. Although it can be hard to pinpoint the exact cause for each person, understanding the complexities behind eating disorders can help remove bias surrounding who we think ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ suffer from them. Eating disorders can have a number of causes, all the way from body dysmorphia to genetic predispositions to environmental causes such as trauma. Studies using brain imaging techniques have even found that the brains of people who have eating disorders respond differently to food cues than those who don’t.
Eating disorders often coincide with other mental illnesses. If men can experience anxiety and depression, why can’t they experience an eating disorder? There are many mental illnesses and developmental disorders commonly seen alongside eating disorders. For example, anxiety disorders are thought to be common in people with eating disorders. Additionally, strong relationships are seen between anorexia and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as binge eating disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
How can I spot the signs of an eating disorder in a friend?
Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice: they are seriously complex and often fatal illnesses affecting people of all genders, ages and races.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses, meaning the core symptoms are what’s going on inside a person’s head. Beyond the more visible symptoms, signs to look out for include obsessions about food (and in some cases weight), regardless of how these manifest physically. Sufferers may also appear withdrawn, anxious or tired.
This doesn’t mean you can’t show concern about someone’s visible eating behaviours, but keep in mind relying on observable symptoms can lead to a danger of dismissing a loved one as being ‘fine’ when in reality they may be very ill. People often mistakenly assume the high fatality of eating disorders is solely due to physical complications, when actually a vast proportion of eating disorder sufferers take their own lives.
If you think your friend may have an eating disorder visit Beat’s page on how to support a loved one.
The bottom line
Understanding and debunking myths about eating disorders can help men around you feel understood. This in turn will encourage men to talk, because they may anticipate helpful responses from those around them, instead of having to justify to their loved ones why they too can suffer from such a serious and complex mental illness. Take some time to think, to read and to educate yourself: be part of a society that encourages men with eating disorders to seek help.