Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders affect both males and females. While it is true that women are more commonly affected by eating disorders, more than a million men and boys battle the illnesses every day. Specifically, it was previously estimated that 8 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder and that 10% are men. However, a more recent Harvard study suggests that out of 3,000 people with an eating disorder 25% are men. Although a great deal is written about women with eating disorders both in the scientific literature and in the lay press, males with eating disorders receive markedly less attention. Times may be changing. Earlier this month Vic Avon, a National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Navigator from New Jersey, was interviewed about his struggle with anorexia. Vic was also interviewed last year by the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders (http://www.namedinc.org/newsdetails.asp?id=61) about his book My Monster Within: My Story. In the book he discusses the development of his eating disorder and his struggle toward recovery. His story is similar to those described by women. Vic received successful treatment in 2008 and is now a NEDA Navigator, providing help and guidance to individuals struggling with eating disorders or individuals worried about someone in order to help them connect with treatment options and resources.
Why the sudden increased interest in men with eating disorders? Right now, we have greater awareness about eating disorders in general along with an ever increasing awareness that males are affected too. The media likely also play a role both in increasing awareness and but also increasing risk. Similar to the cultural pressure placed on girls to meet an ideal body standard, the media continue to promote a lean, muscular physique as ideal for men. Men’s magazines have articles and advertisements promoting body-building and dieting. This pressure is thought to be linked to what some have termed “muscle dysmorphia” which is characterized by the belief that one’s body is too small or underdeveloped. Consequently, at risk men may work-out rigorously for hours each day and take dangerous supplements in order to get bigger. Male celebrities are also starting to come forward about their struggles. For example, actors Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton have spoken about their battle with anorexia and singer Elton John and British politician John Prescott have opened up about their struggles with bulimia.
Despite this increased awareness and interest, a lot is still unknown especially in regard to treatment options. Many treatment programs and support groups are designed for, aimed at, and primarily attended by women. We have not yet investigated how or whether our treatments need to be adapted for males as research examining treatment approaches for eating disorders tends to focus exclusively on women. Additionally, the topics of discussion in treatment may focus on women’s issues, and some men may not find this to be the best “fit” for their needs, although others find the perspective of both sexes to be valuable. Finally, with all of the stigma attached to eating disorders and the misconception that they are a “female problem,” men may be hesitant to seek treatment. However, there is promise as many of the underlying psychological factors that increase risk for an eating disorder are the same for both men and women including low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, trauma, and difficulties coping with emotions. Our program at UNC offers services to men and boys with eating disorders in our outpatient, partial hospitalization, and inpatient programs. Some males prefer programs that are geared entirely to men such as that at The Eating Disorder Center at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin under the direction of Dr. Theodore Weltzin. Where ever you seek treatment, the important piece of information is that there is hope – recovery for males with eating disorders is possible.