Men and eating disorders

Men and eating disorders

“Men have eating disorders too” is a statement that is now heard more often when eating issues are mentioned.

But the men and boys that suffer with eating disorders are real people rather than a theoretical minority within the eating disordered population. Often the casual recognition of the possibility that a small number of males might struggle with an eating disorder does nothing to dispel the illusion that eating disorders are a female illness.

However, things are improving and over the years, books about eating disorders have begun to move from the Women's Health sections of bookshops to the General Health ones. More stories and articles about eating disorders from a male perspective are appearing in literature and the press. Male celebrities have come forward to say that they have had an eating disorder in the past.

It is true that males with eating disorders struggle with many, if not all, of the issues that females do and respond equally well to the same types of treatments and approaches to recovery if they feel able to admit to their ‘female illness’ and seek help. This is central to males with eating disorders and there should never be a stigma to having an eating disorder.

Men and boys do develop eating disorders and recognising this is vitally important. What must also be recognised and addressed is the isolation that might prevent a man or boy from accepting his problem and seeking the help. If he were to access that support, he would have the same chance of recovery as a female with an eating disorder.

A study commissioned by Beat and produced by PwC in February 2015 estimates that more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. This study used a more robust methodology than previous studies. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence estimates around 11% of those affected by an eating disorder are male.

Recent research from the NHS information centre showed that up to 6.4% of adults displayed signs of an eating disorder (Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2007). This research suggested that up to 25% of those showing signs of an eating disorder were male (source Beat).

Whatever the actual figure, it is clear that a significant number of men and boys struggle with an eating disorder and it is presumed that many more go unnoticed as they feel unable to seek help.

Comparatively little research has been done into males with eating disorders, but it does seem apparent that many of the risk factors that exist for women are equally applicable in men. In particular the role of an eating disorder as a coping mechanism for underlying emotional distress is just as relevant in males as it is in females. Consequently, the presence of such unresolved distress in males presents a significant risk factor, as it does in females.

In addition, it is thought that males may be susceptible to a range of other risks, many of which have parallels for females. For example, it is believed that men who engage in sports that demand thinness or have weight categories may be more at risk of developing an eating disorder. It is also believed that there are higher incidences of eating disorders in men with careers that demand thinness or conformity to a physical ideal - for example, models or dancers.

There is also evidence that men who were considered overweight as children may be at increased risk of developing an eating disorder and a particular significance has been placed on the occurrence of weight related bullying or teasing at this time.

Some research also suggests that sexuality may play a part in the increase of the risk of an eating disorder in males, as there appears to be a higher proportion of homosexual males with eating disorders. The Eating Disorders Association's research Eating Disorders In The United Kingdom: Review of the Provision of Health Care Services for men with Eating Disorders noted that 20% of men interviewed described themselves as gay.

At SWEDA, we recognise not only the difficulties in seeking help that anyone struggling with an eating disorder will experience, but also the additional barriers and issues that exist for men and boys. It is our hope that we can enable anyone - male or female - to feel able to seek help.

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