Eating Disorders Aren’t Just A Women’s Issue, Men Are Suffering Too
Although eating disorders are being more widely discussed than ever before, they are often still seen a young women’s disease.
The reality is that many men are also affected – current statistics estimate that between 11% to one quarter of eating disorder sufferers are male – but, due to smaller numbers, stigma and lack of awareness, their suffering is often in silence.
While there are similarities between male and female eating disorders sufferers, often triggers and behaviours manifest themselves differently in men. And while the public’s understanding of what constitutes an eating disorder is so deeply-rooted in the female experience, men are forgotten or given a token mention.
Sam Thomas, founder of Men Get Eating Disorders Too, believes official statistics risk underestimating the problem among men.
“Current figures only count those who have sought help and done so through the NHS rather than private hospitals,” he tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. “They also fail to recognise symptoms of disordered eating that fall outside more typical eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia.”
As a recovered bulimia sufferer himself, Thomas would know. His own experiences were shaped by lack of knowledge, support and visibility, which he, through the work of his charity, is determined to change.
Thomas, who had bulimia between the ages of 13-21 with almost “no idea” what the problem was, visited the GP multiple times before he was diagnosed.
“I recognised my symptoms while reading an agony aunt column and plucked up the courage to go to the doctor,” he tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. “At first we only spoke about my depression and anxiety, there was no mention of my eating disorder. I wonder whether I would have been diagnosed sooner if I was female.”
The problem, says Thomas, is lack of training. “Eating disorders is a specialism and so GPs are unable to provide diagnosis.”
Mary George, a spokesperson for eating disorder charity B-eat, says that even when men do access treatment, the experience is skewed towards women.
The fact that there are more females being treated than men means that treatment tends to focus on the feminine. This can prevent men coming forward.
“Men will often turn up to an outpatient group and be the only male, which can be off-putting,” she says. “Similarly inpatient wards are same-sex only and so men will be placed among non-eating disorder sufferers, which is only more isolating – lack of funding means there are no male-only treatment centres in the country.”
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It is clear that more clarity and education around eating disorders is vital, but how does the male experience of eating disorders differ to the female?
While men can suffer from bulimia and anorexia, many others fall into the EDNOS category (Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified). Often the eating disorders affecting men are less common or even unheard of in women, making them more difficult to diagnose.
A higher proportion of men are believed to suffer from bulimia (binge eating and purging), binge eating disorder (binge eating without purging) and bigorexia (an obsession with building muscle mass or ‘bulking up’ in the gym).
This means that not all men with eating disorders will be underweight; bigorexia sufferers will often be muscly, while binge eating disorder sufferers may be severely overweight.
That’s not to say that all muscly or overweight men have eating disorders, simply that the physical signs are not always the easiest sign to decode.
George says that behavourial signs are worth noting.
“Eating disorder sufferers are usually secretive and can display obsessive tendencies,” she says. “They may withdraw from friends or suddenly become really into exercise.”
But even with these definitions, eating disorders are a complex mental health issue and so present differently with each individual case. There is no one-size-fits-all.
Perhaps we may gain more clarity if we understood the initial trigger, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exact causes for male eating disorders.
Experts often link them to peer pressure, an identity crisis and the need gain control over life. Not all eating disorder sufferers have poor body image.
Dave Charma, 25, a long-suffering anorexic and ambassador for Men Get Eating Disorders Too who recently relapsed, told HuffPost UK Lifestyle that his eating disorder began as a way of getting control in his life but has become so embedded in his identity that he does not want to get well.
“My anorexia has given me an identity,” he tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. “I wasn’t cool or sporty at school, but now I am Mr Manorexic.”
Charma, who first identified with anorexia at 19, says he refused to seek medical help for years until depression left him unable to perform daily tasks.
“My depression became so severe that I thought I would never be happy again,” he tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. “It consumed me. I couldn’t concentrate or remember anything, so I eventually sought help.”
By way of an explanation, Thomas says that for a lot of men, it often comes down to being unable to cope with pressure.
“Sufferers may have a low self-esteem, whether this is due to body image or another area of life such as relationships or career. Often an eating disorder is a way of getting control on an aspect of your life – getting stability when they feel mentally chaotic.”