While everyone may experience the issues mentioned in this article, please note that as part of our initiative responding to the APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men (2018), these articles will focus on how these topics affect males, as well as the mental health of men and boys, for men's health month. We use “male” to refer to people who identify as such.
Based on national surveys in the U.S., it is estimated that there are about twenty million women and ten million men who currently have or have had an eating disorder. Eating disorders (EDs) are thus fairly common in men, but men are much less likely to be diagnosed with EDs due to a variety of factors. It is commonly thought that men cannot struggle with EDs, but this is not true.
Despite roughly one in every three individuals with disordered eating being a man, many people fail to realize how common EDs are in men. The lack of attention and understanding of eating disorders in men is due to the following factors, among others:
This article will first provide an overview of eating disorders before diving into the most common EDs among men and the most at-risk males to help you develop a better understanding of men eating disorders.
Disordered eating affects millions of people and is much more than just a food issue. These are complicated mental health problems that can require doctors and psychologists for diagnosis and treatment.
While EDs can manifest in various ways, they all involve, to some degree, unhealthy eating patterns and other behaviors. They often begin with a fixation on body weight, physique, or food. In the most severe cases, EDs cause health problems and can even result in death if they are not treated.
Numerous factors can lead to the development of eating disorders:
There are many manifestations of EDs as well, several of which we will highlight:
People of all different sizes and weights may experience EDs.
Medicine and society have both (incorrectly) largely viewed eating disorders as a strictly feminine issue. In fact, until the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), loss of one’s period was a requirement to meet all criteria for anorexia.
Despite the stereotype that it is primarily women who experience body image issues and disordered eating, many men struggle, or have struggled, with EDs. These may be caused by different reasons and manifested in different ways than in women.
To examine this further, we will look now at a few of the more common eating disorders, like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, diagnosed in men.
Recent studies show that men make up roughly 15% of cases of eating disorders, including anorexia. Men with anorexia, however, are more likely than women to face harsh stigmatization or go undiagnosed.
Gender plays a role in that boys and men struggling with anorexia may not be properly treated even when getting help. Parents of adolescent boys report that local hospitals have failed to refer them to specialists or psychologists for assessment and treatment.
While some men with EDs develop anorexia, it is less common than other EDs involving binge eating.
Studies show that men who experience disordered eating are more likely to eat excessively rather than starve themselves. It is estimated that roughly forty percent of individuals diagnosed with binge eating disorders are men and boys.
The greater prevalence of binge eating among men with disordered eating habits may connect to societal pressures that encourage men to eat freely while encouraging women to restrict themselves.
For many boys and men, binge eating may occur from a desire to be strong and bulked up, leading to a condition known as Bigorexia.
Also known as muscle dysmorphia, Bigorexia causes individuals to obsess about continually building muscle. It’s listed in the DSM-5 as an unhealthy preoccupation with the idea that one’s body isn’t big or muscular enough.
Boys and men with Bigorexia will fixate on their bodies and their perceived weakness or lack of size, muscle, etc., leading to unhealthy behaviors and traits such as excessive weightlifting, unhealthy eating, and self-loathing. At its worst, it can lead to unhealthy use of steroids, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.
One prospective cohort study attempted to further explore the presence of disordered eating behaviors related to increasing muscularity among young adults. The study found that over 20% of young men engage in some kind of disordered behavior in order to become more muscular. Several factors that put young people at high risk for these kinds of harmful patterns include perceiving themselves as underweight and engaging in physical activity with the goal of weight gain.
If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call a suicide hotline. In the U.S., you can dial 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Or, use the web chat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
As you might gather from the section above, certain boys and men may be particularly at risk for the development of disordered eating habits, including:
Although these individuals are more susceptible, it should be noted that anyone can develop an eating disorder at any given time for a wide variety of reasons.
Seeking help for an eating disorder can be a formidable challenge, particularly for boys and men, due to societal stigma and little information being available regarding many mental health topics as they relate to men and boys.
As with any mental health issue, recognizing the issue and consulting a professional for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment is an important first step. If you or your loved one may be struggling with disordered eating habits, it is in your best interest to connect with an expert or find support groups that can help. See below for an example of working with the professionals at BetterHelp.
“Whatever I say here, it won’t do justice to the professionalism or Dr. Kevin. He is an excellent human being, on top of his professionalism. He understood my every concern, the slightest details of my worries. I can’t thank him enough for the work he did with me so far. I was almost a dead man walking, and Dr. Kevin addressed my issues so competently to the point that he made me believe that life is worthy of living it when one handles issues the proper way. Dr. Kevin is now a part of my life. I believe that I haven’t been the easiest and the most obedient client he probably had until now. But he made a hopeless man feel alive again. The journey is not over yet for me. And there is no better commander out there than Dr. Kevin, who would fight for you. Thank you, Dr. Kevin.”
We hope this overview of eating disorders has helped shed light on an important issue that often fails to adequately address everyone who experiences them.
For additional resources and treatment options, contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline (or text NEDA) at (800) 931-2237.
Other Commonly Asked Questions:
What percent of men struggle with eating disorders?
Despite widespread misconceptions about eating disorders as a ‘women’s issue,’ it is crucial to acknowledge that eating disorders do affect males. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, one out of three individuals living with an eating disorder is male. Additionally, disordered eating behaviors (such as restricting calories for weight loss, purging or laxative abuse) are nearly equally as prevalent in males and females. However, it is likely that the percentage of males with eating disorders is higher than we know. Due to harmful stereotypes about eating disorders and societal stigma around receiving psychological help, males tend to be less likely to seek treatment. Therefore, it is essential to improve recognition around male eating disorders and boys as a significant issue.
Eating disorders develop as a result of a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. Having a family history of eating disorders or other mental health conditions can increase one’s risk of developing an eating disorder. Other risk factors include certain personality characteristics and body image concerns.
Numerous peer reviewed studies have been conducted about the connection between male body image and the development of eating disorders. These studies suggest that most males would like to have a lean and muscular build that reflects what society perceives as the ‘ideal male body’. Constantly seeing depictions of this unrealistic body standard in the media we consume (think of the male characters in the Marvel cinematic universe) can lead to male body dissatisfaction and disordered eating or exercise behavior. The National Eating Disorders Association notes that 90% of teenage boys exercise in order to gain weight and increase muscularity.
It is important to recognize the warning signs of muscle dysmorphia. This mental health condition is a form of body dysmorphic disorder, and is often associated with male bodybuilders. An individual with muscle dysmorphia may spend two hours or more at the gym each day working out. They may have distorted perceptions about their body shape or size (body dysmorphia) and potentially engage in steroid use to alter their athletic performance or appearance.
For more information about eating disorders in males, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.
Can males get bulimia?
Yes. Men can develop various types of eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. The National Eating Disorders Association lists various warning signs of an eating disorder, including preoccupation with food, calories, or body size/shape, cutting out entire food groups, frequent dieting, isolating oneself while eating, excessive exercise, and social withdrawal. It is essential for people struggling with an eating disorder to seek treatment, as these conditions can lead to dangerous consequences on emotional and physical health.
If you believe you may be experiencing signs of an eating disorder, seeking the guidance of primary care providers or mental health professionals can help you to explore treatment options. It is essential for treatment to be delivered with a gender sensitive approach, taking into consideration the specific treatment needs of people of all genders.
In addition to professional treatment, an individual may benefit from connecting with other individuals navigating disordered eating or body issues. The National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders (ANAD) offers a wide variety of peer support groups that meet virtually. It is important to note that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible, and there is always hope.