EATING DISORDERS AND MEN
Historically, eating disorders have been thought of as a condition that primarily affects adolescent girls and young women. For many years, young upper-middle class Caucasian female sufferers comprised the majority of those seeking treatment for anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating disorder. However, this is a deadly myth; no one is exempt from developing an eating disorder based on gender.
Consequently, laypeople as well as mental health experts erroneously assumed that since members of the male population who exhibited eating-disordered behavior were a statistical anomaly, they were therefore also a distinct aberration. As a result, the idea that only women had eating disorders persisted. The neglect of a very real population of male individuals struggling with eating disorders prevented serious consideration of their illness and expeditious treatment.
While men have historically suffered with eating disorders, they have often felt that getting help was a sign of weakness, instead choosing to “tough it out” and deal with their problems on their own. This can, of course, lead to deadly consequences.
Fortunately, recent research has the increased understanding of these complex emotional disorders and has brought the growing prevalence of males with eating disorders to the attention of the health care community and the public at large.
Current data indicates that males account for one tenth of all diagnosed eating disorders. Although there are notable physical and emotional differences between men and women, the underlying issues that are responsible for the development of an eating disorder are essentially the same. Environmental factors along with psychological and peer group pressures, combined with cultural influences, can all play a significant part in instigating eating disordered behavior for males just as well as female sufferers. The repeated and ongoing exposure to media messages promoting “ideal physiques” affect the body-consciousness of vulnerable individuals of both genders equally. While eating-disordered women tend to be more concerned with their weight, men with eating disorders tend to be more concerned with their body size and shape.
Adolescence is a particularly difficult time for eating-disordered men. Gender identity, sexuality and the process of becoming an adult can cause men to feel like their life is out of their control. Some men engage in eating-disordered behavior as a way to control sexual impulses and other chaotic factors in their life.
Genetically, males and females share an equivalent risk of inheriting an eating disorder. Males who engage in rigorous diet or exercise regimens as part of sports, or in an attempt to conform to a hard-bodied, masculine ideal (as unrealistic as those super skinny female super models) are particularly in danger of triggering a latent genetic predisposition to eating disorders.
Certain sports like wrestling, boxing, martial arts, swimming and body building put heavy weight requirements on athletes. The drive to compete can cause men to become preoccupied with their weight and physique. Steroid abuse is also prevalent in certain sports like bodybuilding, which can cause dangerous side-effects including sexual dysfunction and depression.
The resulting feelings of lowered self-esteem when men fail to achieve the unattainable “perfect body” only serve to reinforce the psychological stressors that further ingrain unhealthy weight management behaviors such as excessive exercise, skipping meals, binging and purging.
Early detection and treatment of eating disorders is crucial for lasting recovery for both genders. For male sufferers, it is essential that they seek a course of treatment that addresses the singular needs of this previously neglected population. Although the underlying causality for eating disorders is similar from person-to-person regardless of his or her gender, each case is unique and requires an individualized, multi-disciplinary approach that deal with the patient’s emotional and physiological issues.
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