The words ‘eating disorders’ often conjure up images of young female teens, yet research suggests that numerous boys and teens are also at risk. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders, one in every 10 cases of eating disorders involves males. Maudsley Parents, meanwhile, notes that while in the 1960s and 1970s, eating disorders in males were thought to be practically non-existent, in the 1980s and 1990s the number of males affected was thought to stand at around 10 per cent and now, males make up 25 per cent of eating disorder patients.
Boys as young as seven or eight can develop anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorders or Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) and it is estimated that some 10 million boys and youths in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. The most common age for the development of anorexia nervosa is the late teens or early 20s, while binge eating disorder tends to arise in males and females in their 20s. The most common age for the onset of bulimia, meanwhile, is 12 to 25. Sometimes, although an official disorder is not diagnosed, problems still exist. According to National Eating Disorders.org, for instance, around three per cent of teen boys display unhealthy weight control behaviors, while 43 per cent of men are dissatisfied with their body image.
Some of the most pertinent findings on male eating disorders include:
- While female with eating disorders tend to focus on thinness, boys and teens aim for a lean, ‘ripped’ body in which muscles are visible.
- Males who play sports which are judged have a 13 per cent risk of developing an eating disorder, compared to only three per cent in those who play referred sports.
- Male athletes with anorexia commonly have the following personality traits: competitiveness, being impulsive, having a tendency to be depressed, perfectionism, worrying about weight and hyperactivity.
- Some sports in which eating disorders have been more prevalent include weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, dancing, and bodybuilding. Often, males feel that looking more muscular will bring them success in other areas (for instance, in social acceptance, acceptance by romantic interests, etc.).
- Eating disorders in males can be linked to the concept of ‘control’. Males can feel that is their duty to control all aspects of their lives, including how they look. This can lead to an obsession with dieting, attendance at the gym, etc.
- Males are less likely to obtain help when they have eating disorders for many reasons. Firstly, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating are often thought of as an exclusively ‘female’ problem. Secondly, boys and teens can be fearful that their concerns will not be taken seriously by health professionals. Thirdly, they often don’t know who to turn to.
- Signs to watch out for in boys include an obsession with exercise or eating specific foods, not being able to resist exercise even when one is injured, low testosterone levels, etc.
If you or a loved one may have an eating disorder, it is vital to obtain help; anorexia nervosa has an alarmingly high mortality rate, and the sooner diagnosis and treatment are received, the better. Gold standard treatments for eating disorders include Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (in which patients are taught about the interrelationship between how they think, behave, and act, and taught practical strategies to overcome obsessive thoughts and negativity). Another excellent treatment is Maudsley Therapy, which involves the whole family supporting the person with the eating disorder. Families are taught to set aside blame and judgement and focus on a positive strategy that each members plays an important role in carrying out.
In eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, the first step is to establish weight gain. In bulimia, the key is to stop the bingeing-purging cycle, while in binge eating disorder, bingeing is the key behavior which must be prevented. Once the individual establishes a normal weight and begins to feel stronger, they are then given more freedom with respect to choosing the types of food they eat, etc. Eventually, they develop a healthy, positive relationship with food, and recognize the triggers that can lead to a relapse into unhealthy behaviors. Patients also need to be tested for other possible co-existing conditions (such as depression, or anxiety). If present, these conditions need to be diagnosed and treated, to enable lasting recovery.
Contributor: Helen Young
If you feel your son is struggling with an eating disorder and you have exhausted your local resources, it might be time to consider residential therapy. Please contact us for options.