We, quite rightly, hear a lot about eating disorders in women, but we don’t often hear about men’s eating disorders. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Far from it, in fact.
It’s estimated that 25% of adults with an eating disorder in the UK are male.
And recent statistics show a surprising result. There was a 70% increase in men being admitted to hospital with an eating disorder between 2010 and 2016. Bear in mind, that’s just the hospital admissions. It’s unclear how many men (and women) are suffering from misunderstood, undiagnosed or untreated eating disorders.
What is Disordered Eating?
Disordered eating is usually the result of many complex factors, and can take many forms.
- Anorexia sufferers severely restrict their calorie intake in an effort to lose weight. This is sometimes combined with exercise to further reduce calories gained from food.
- Bulimia encourages cycles of binging and purging. A sufferer will eat excessively and compulsively, usually in private. This is then followed by feelings of guilt and disgust, leading to induced purging, often accomplished through vomiting, laxative abuse or excessive exercising.
- Orthorexia is a fixation on a ‘healthy’ lifestyle, which can lead to obsessive and self-punishing behaviour like excluding certain food groups, or over-exercising.
It’s estimated that bulimia is a more common eating disorder in men than anorexia. Binge eating disorder often goes unreported and undiagnosed, meaning the figures are unreliable.
All of these are serious, complex conditions, and can be life-threatening. They often coexist with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
What Triggers Eating Disorders?
We now know that more and more men are suffering disordered eating, and it can affect men and boys of any age.
There is some evidence that eating disorders in men can be triggered by transitions and milestones in life. Being bullied about size or shape can be a trigger. Another example would be partaking in certain sports where body shape plays a role.
Commonly termed ‘bigorexia’, some men can become obsessed with getting bigger and more muscular. Working in an industry where size is scrutinised is another cause.
Eating Disorders Don’t Discriminate
The pressure to look good is everywhere. It surrounds us, and can feel all-consuming. TV advertising, billboards, adverts on trains, in magazines, on the internet.
Women may be bombarded with images of the ‘perfect’ bikini body. But increasingly men are also constantly exposed to images of ripped torsos, big thighs and V shaped ‘Johnny Bravo’ backs. These images communicate a subtle but dangerous message – that these are body shapes that anyone can have, and that we should all aspire to.
The implication is that if you don’t look that way, you need to try harder, whatever the cost.
Then there’s social media. Who hasn’t scrolled through their feeds wistfully thinking how much better life would be if only we looked like that? Instagram has thousands of nutrition and fitness accounts. There are endless buff guys and information on what they eat and how they train. More and more of these accounts offering ‘#fitspo’ (fitness inspiration) are aimed directly at men.
The Pressure to ‘Be a Man’
Men’s eating disorders could be even higher than estimated, due to these same societal pressures telling men they can’t seek help. ‘Man up’ is a common phrase, but what does it mean? That a man shouldn’t have emotions, or feel bad, or ask for help when they need it?
Men are under constant pressure not to betray any signs of feeling depressed or vulnerable. Many TV adverts and programmes depict ‘strong’ male characters. Rather than talking about their thoughts and feelings, we see male characters in dramas who punch walls and drink pints of beer to cope. They don’t cry or talk things through with their friends, like female characters might do.
Eating disorders in men are still not as widely recognised and understood as they should be. Many treatment programmes are developed with females in mind. Women tend to have a desire to replicate the kind of thinness we see in magazines, and use vomiting and laxatives more. Whereas men tend towards a desire to look lean but muscular. They often use excessive exercise, and experience anger because of binging. Many hospitals and clinics simply don’t have the facilities to admit men. Along with long waiting times, this can all hinder progress and recovery.
In some ways, the rise in hospital admissions in men with eating disorders could even be a positive sign. A sign that the message is getting through. That whoever you are, getting help for an eating disorder is crucial.
Don’t ‘Man Up’!
Let’s listen to what all that these facts, figures and research are telling us. It is possible to destigmatise men’s eating disorders. It isn’t weak to seek help. You don’t need to ‘man up’.
The first step is to talk to someone. If you think that you, or someone close to you, may have an eating disorder, confide in someone. Having the support of a trusted, non-judgemental confidant will help you gain clarity. They can also support you in finding professional help.
A GP visit will put you on the right path to getting the help you need. Or if you’d rather not talk to your GP, contact Men Get Eating Disorders Too or BEAT in complete confidence to find help in your area.