How Common Are Eating Disorders In Men?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated August 2, 2022

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:

  • Men are frequently left out of research on EDs
  • Men and their loved ones often don’t realize that men can have disordered eating habits
  • Some professionals are biased and thus fail to recognize disordered eating in men
  • Men absorb social stigma that perpetuates the idea that men don’t have EDs
  • Men are sometimes excluded from treatment centers for eating disorders
  • EDs may present different symptoms in men than in women
  • The criteria for diagnosis are often gender-biased

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.

What Are Eating Disorders (EDs)?: An Overview

Struggling With An Eating Disorder? You're Not Alone.

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:

  • Genetics – Studies using twins show that if one twin has developed an eating disorder, the other has a 1-in-2 chance of developing one as well.
  • Personality Traits – Individuals afflicted by narcissism, perfectionism, and neuroticism are more likely to develop disordered eating habits.
  • Societal Pressures – Some cultures that don’t celebrate thinness have much fewer cases of eating disorders, suggesting that perhaps Western society emphasizes weight loss, which may promote high rates of certain types of disordered eating. "One size fits all" clothing and toys like action figures both promote unhealthy body image expectations. 
  • Brain Chemistry – Research has recently investigated the role that brain chemistry may play in developing eating disorders, especially in terms of serotonin and dopamine levels.

There are many manifestations of EDs as well, several of which we will highlight:

  • Anorexia Nervosa – People with anorexia will limit their eating and use unhealthy methods to lose weight or maintain a low weight, including excessive exercise, laxatives, or vomiting.
  • Bulimia Nervosa – People with bulimia cycle between binging and purging, eating excessively and then vomiting, or using other methods to lose the calories taken in during the binging period.
  • Binge Eating Disorder – People with binge eating disorder tend to eat significantly past the point of feeling full and often feel unable to stop eating. Binge eating disorder differs from bulimia in that binge eating is not “compensated” for by purging or other unhealthy methods.

People of all different sizes and weights may experience EDs.

What EDs Affect The Male Population?

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.

Anorexia

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.

Binge Eating Disorder

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.

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.

Male Populations At Greater Risk For EDs

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:

  • Athletes – Involvement in sports may increase the risk of eating disorders, as athletes face internal and external pressures regarding their weight and physiques. Popular athletic pursuits that may negatively affect athletes include swimming, gymnastics, dancing, wrestling, running, and bodybuilding.
  • Actors – Particularly well-known ones, must sometimes engage in disordered eating to play a particular film role. Moreover, actors may feel intense pressure to look a certain way due to their position in the spotlight.
  • Men Who Have Survived Abuse – Men who are abused, particularly when young, may be more susceptible to the development of an eating disorder compared to other men. This is true especially if they were taunted or otherwise ridiculed about their weight or body type.
  • Men With Substance Use Disorder Compared to women with EDs, men with EDs have a much higher likelihood of substance use disorder.
  • College Students College is a major transition period, and research suggests that male college students are more likely to develop an eating disorder than males of other ages. After all, they’re away from home and may also feel pressure to conform to a certain idealized body type to attract potential sexual partners.

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.

Combatting Eating Disorders

Struggling With An Eating Disorder? You're Not Alone.

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.”

Wrapping Up

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.

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