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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

Eating Disorders in Males

Katherine Ottati

Eating disorders are largely considered to be a "female disease". Statistics seem to validate this perception of the estimated five million-plus adults in the United States who have an eating disorder, only ten percent are thought to be male ((1)). Many professionals, however, hold the opinion that these numbers are incorrect it is impossible to base the statistics on anything other than the number of adults diagnosed with eating disorders, and men are much less likely than women to seek help for such a problem ((2)). This means that the male population probably suffers more from eating disorders than the numbers show.

The fact that the number of men who suffer from eating disorders is larger than most people think, and the fact that most people do not consider men to be susceptible to eating disorders at all, raise the question of whether or not we treat men who may have an eating disorder the same way we treat women. Simply put, this knowledge begs the question: is it more dangerous to be a man with an eating disorder than it is to be a woman with one?

For quite some time, there was a great deal of debate within the medical community as to whether or not men develop eating disorders for the same reasons that women do ((2)). Since very few men are willing to participate in treatment and study programs for people suffering from eating disorders, there was little way of knowing what psychological factors triggered disordered eating in males. A study published in the April 2001 issue of an APA journal, which looked at men with eating disorders and compared them to women with eating disorders and men without eating disorders, found that "men are generally very similar to women in terms of comparing psychopathology," and that "the illnesses are much more equivalent in prevalence than was previously thought" ((2)). Triggers for developing eating disorders have been found to be similar between the sexes: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, difficulty coping with emotional and personal problems, and other existing psychological illnesses are common underlying factors in the development of disordered eating ((3)).

Aside from having the same basic influences, men usually develop the same kinds of eating disorders associated with women. Many people think that, given the muscular appearance of the male ideal, "male" eating disorders would be different from what are considered to be "female" eating disorders. The most common eating disorders in men, however, are anorexia, bulimia and binge eating (in which the person uncontrollably eats large quantities of food but does not purge after eating), which are also very common among women who have eating disorders ((1)). Like women, men who are involved in weight-conscious sports, such as wrestling, swimming and running, are more likely to develop eating disorders than those who do not participate in such activities ((3)). The only notable difference found between men and women with eating disorders thus far is that "while women who develop eating disorders feel fat before the onset of their disordered eating...typically they are near average weight. Men are more typically overweight medically before the development of the disorder" ((3)).

Given that most of the underlying psychological triggers for eating disorders, as well as the way eating disorders manifest themselves, is basically the same for both men and women, it seems strange to suggest that eating disorders may pose more of a threat to men than to women. Many health care professionals who specialize in eating disorders, however, worry that this is the case. The first danger is that a man (and those around him) may be less likely to notice his behavior or to think it is a real problem because "eating disorders have long been assumed to plague women only" ((4)). Many men do not know the symptoms of eating disorders, which means that they would not know what to seek help for even if they felt that something was wrong ((4)).

Medical professionals may also be less likely to diagnose an eating disorder in male patients that in their female counterparts. When Jason DeMaio was taken to the hospital, he was so thin that the simple act of walking was almost too much for his body to handle. At 5 feet 7 inches, DeMaio weighed in at around eighty pounds. His doctors, noting his extremely low weight and swollen lymph nodes, thought that he was exhibiting symptoms of cancer. It was only after this line of diagnosis proved fruitless that they began to consider that their patient might have an eating disorder ((1)). When dealing with the other side of eating disorders, men who bingo or compulsively overeat may not be diagnosed as having an eating disorder not only because emotionally triggered eating is not associated with men, but also because of "society's willingness to accept an overeating and/or overweight man more so than an overeating and/or overweight woman" ((3)).

Even when men know, through diagnosis or simply through their own deduction, that they have an eating disorder, they are much less likely to seek professional treatment than women. Many men are unwilling to ask for help concerning what they, and many others, consider to be a woman's problem ((2)). They fear being labeled as weak, effeminate, homosexual, or simply "not real men," and feel an intense sense of shame surrounding their disordered eating ((1)).

The lack of availability of treatment centers that can effectively treat male patients both validates and augments these concerns. Centers that treat eating disorders are often geared towards women, and many dislike admitting male patients because their presence may make female patients feel uncomfortable. Most of the programs who do readily allow men to participate do not have separate programs for male and female patients ((1)). Just as women may not be comfortable discussing their disordered eating in front of a man, men may very well want to avoid talking about their problems in a group composed mainly of women. Since group therapy is one of the most common and effective tools in battling an eating disorder ((1)), it is important that men participating in these programs are in groups where the can share their feelings openly.

What all of this suggests is that eating disorders are actually more dangerous for men, if only because men are less likely to seek and/or receive help. What is most important in lessening this danger is, in my opinion, educating the public on the reality of male eating disorders. While the media attention dedicated to women and girls suffering from eating disorders has been helpful in educating the general public to the threat of eating disorders in females, its neglect in covering men with eating disorders may contribute to the problem. People do not see or hear about men with eating disorders; therefore men with eating disorders do not exist for most people.

The medical community holds a large portion of the responsibility for educating the public on the dangers that eating disorders pose to men as well as women. Family doctors, for example, gave my parents (and the parents of my female friends) lectures on the importance of promoting a good self-image in their daughters as they approached puberty; to promote healthy eating and exercise habits while at the same time offering emotional support and watching their growing daughter for the signs of disordered eating. My parents did not get the same speech regarding my brother, nor did any of the parents of my male friends. It is important that doctors tell parents to help their sons maintain a healthy body image and educate them on the early signs of an eating disorder in their child. It is also important that doctors be aware of the possibility that one of their male patients may have an eating disorder, and that they treat any of the symptoms that would lead them to believe a female patient had an eating disorder just as seriously when those symptoms occur in a male patient. By working to erode the assumption that eating disorders are fundamentally un-masculine, we assure that men feel able to seek the same help that as women.


1)Men With Eating Disorders Face Unique Challenges

2)News From the APA: Men Less Likely to Seek Help for Eating Disorders

3)Issues for Men With Eating Disorders

4)Men Less Likely to Seek Help for Eating Disorders 2

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