Eating disorders are becoming an epidemic that touch people throughout the world. Approximately one in ten women have an eating disorder. And 82% of ten-year-old children have an immense fear of getting ‘fat’. Rates of female eating disorder in the last few decades have more than tripled. But what about the men? Men are also capable of developing an eating disorder, so why is it that we rarely hear about men and eating disorders in the media? Why is there so little information about men and eating disorders? Some eating disorder associations have taken to calling this a ‘Silent Epidemic’ because of the stigma and lack of conversation surrounding this topic. But just because the prevalence of male eating disorders is lower than with females doesn’t mean they should be pushed aside and ignored.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) 10 million males in the United States alone are suffering from a clinically significant eating disorder in their lifetime. However, it is important to note that many male eating disorders go misdiagnosed, untreated and unreported, so these numbers may not be a good representative of male eating disorders. Unfortunately, this means that the number is probably much higher. The stigma and shame surrounding male eating disorders is higher and this means that men will be more embarrassed and less likely to come forward for help and treatment. This is a sad fact because eating disorders have such a high mortality rate. Therefore, this stigmatization is literally killing
people and needs to end. For male eating disorders and eating disorders in general.
According to NEDA, the ratio of female-to-male eating disorder rates are as follows: anorexia (10:1), bulimia (10:1), and binge eating disorder (2:1). This means that about 10% of eating disorder sufferers are male. The rate among binge eating disorder (BED) sufferers is especially high, as, for every two women that suffer from BED, there is one male suffering too. This means that anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder are not limited to only females, men suffer too. Ignoring this fact is so detrimental to the men struggling with an eating disorder because they don’t know where to turn for help, or are often misdiagnosed and don’t receive proper treatment.
I find it interesting, however, that the highest rate of eating disorders among men is actually eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). This means that most men with eating disorders have symptoms that fit into more than one eating disorder diagnosis category but not enough to be given that diagnosis. It means that they have signs of multiple eating disorders, not just clear-cut signs of one particular eating disorder. EDNOS diagnoses in men may account for the fact that a lot of men are looking to achieve a fit, bodybuilding body type. The media portrays women as thin and men as muscular, V-shaped and athletic. Along with binging, purging or restricting their diets, many men are now misusing protein/nutritional supplements, abusing steroids and are over exercising in order to achieve this ‘masculine’ body ideal. Because these symptoms and behaviors do not fit into one particular eating disorder category, this means that many men get an EDNOS diagnosis if diagnosed at all. I truly believe that many ‘professionals’ would consider this ‘normal’ masculine behavior and would not associate it with disordered eating behaviors. However, these types of unhealthy actions are disordered and can be seriously harmful to the individual.
Since these behaviors are not a part of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, perhaps it is time for a new type of eating disorders, one that explains these types of behaviors. Having the DSM classify these newer symptoms as a whole new type of eating disorder may make it easier for men to come forward and seek treatment for their issues. It would also bring more awareness to the idea that certain behaviors are unhealthy and should not be done. It would help with the fact that many men may feel anxiety about being labeled with a ‘female disorder’ if they could have their own type of eating disorder to fall into. They would no longer worry about feeling ‘feminine’ or worry about being thought of as gay.
It should be noted that not all male eating disordered individuals are gay, but gay men do make-up approximately 42% of the men with eating disorders (NEDA). Although there is nothing wrong with having different sexual orientations, there is, unfortunately, a stigma around this, as some men do not want to be perceived as being homosexual just because they have an eating disorder. This is just another reason why the stigmatization needs to be taken care of. A new diagnosis would eliminate some of the stigmas surrounding male eating disorders.
Although it is unfortunate that men feel they cannot come forward and seek help when they suffer from an eating disorder, there is hope for prevention and treatment. Just like treatment is available for females, males have the same options should they be diagnosed with an eating disorder. NEDA recognizes the importance of understanding the difference between male and female eating disorders. NEDA also understands the different struggles men have to deal with when facing an eating disorder like gender role conflicts, stigmas surrounding mental health, and misdiagnosis. The NEDA website (http://tinyurl.com/o7t9nlx) also gives some tips for enhancing male body image. Some of these tips include being aware of the negative messages you send yourself, remembering that body type does not equal worth, focusing on the qualities you do like about yourself, and surrounding yourself with friends who don’t use body size and shape as determinants for worth.
It is important for men to find treatment options that understand the difference between males and females in terms of eating disorders. Although they have many similarities, the struggles are also different. Treatment should be tailored to the individual, not generalized for everyone. It is also important for the rest of society to realize that gender should not matter when treating mental illnesses like eating disorders. Eating disorders don’t discriminate based on gender and neither should we.
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