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Eating Disorders an Increasing Problem in Males

Eating disorders are no longer a teenage, Caucasian, upper middle class "princess" disease

In a recent article that appeared in Marie Claire magazine, eating disorders are compared to AIDS in that they’re an increasing problem and they don’t spare any demographic.

“We’ve moved away from this as a Caucasian, upper-middle-class, ‘princess’ disease. It’s everybody’s disease,” says Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, medical director of child and adolescent services at Eating Recovery Center in Denver.

When you think of anorexia, you picture young girls, their skeletal frames looking sickly to everyone, but themselves. You can’t understand how they could look at their reflection in the mirror and feel fat. But very young children, seniors, boys, other ethnic groups are all being affected by eating disorders these days. In fact, research has shown that boys as young as 10-years-old are making themselves throw up to lose weight.  Some people argue that the media is to blame. Images of thin girls and perfectly tanned men with six-pack abs make us all question our ideas of beauty. There are those who would claim the lure of looking like super models drives people to eating disorders. And I absolutely believe the media plays a role in the rise of eating disorders.  But it’s more complicated than that.

A teenage boy I know has grappled with an eating disorder. In his case, as in many, many cases, his problems didn’t originate because he wanted to look like an Abercrombie model. No, for him, it wasn’t really about the weight at all. It was about self-esteem. In order to feel better about himself, he starved himself. His thinking became a little tangled as he thought all he needed to do was lose some weight and he’d feel better about himself. As time went on, he began to feel he was fat despite the fact that he’d lost 30 pounds in a short amount of time and his six foot frame looked gaunt, at best.

In individuals who are predisposed for eating disorders (as there’s a hereditary component to the disease), a traumatic event can trigger the behaviors of anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or binge eating. In my teenage friend, it was his parents’ divorce and, more specifically, his father walking out on him that started his eating problems. His thinking was that he wasn’t even good enough for his dad to care, therefore he wasn’t good enough for anyone. It was a huge blow to his already fragile self-esteem. It led to the kind of warped thinking that if he could only lose weight, he’d be okay. And losing weight was something he could control. He could go without eating and the weight would drop off. He couldn’t control his father’s actions or the uncertainty he felt about his future, but he could control his weight.

So how do eating disorders look in a male? How can you tell if this might be something affecting your son? The disease often manifests different in men.  Instead of the emaciated, frail-looking women we think of, oftentimes men simply look lean and muscular. Instead of starving themselves, making themselves vomit, or abusing laxatives, men are more likely to exercise obsessively. This kind of behavior generally receives applause. People praise the young men for being so healthy and dedicated to their workout routine which in turn, exacerbates the problem.

Sometimes the problem starts innocently enough.  A wrestler says, “I just need to lose five pounds to make my weight class.”  A football player starves himself before weighing in so he can play in the game.  But for some individuals, it doesn’t end there.  The need to lose weight accelerates and continues until it’s out of control.

Another thing that’s common, affecting approximately 25% of individuals with eating disorders, is other self-injurious behaviors. When you think about it, it makes sense as eating disorders really are ways of injuring yourself. A quarter of those with eating disorders may cut, burn, or scratch themselves, pull their eyelashes out, or even more seriously, attempt suicide.

My teenage friend received several weeks of inpatient treatment followed by ongoing outpatient treatment and counseling and is now, six months later, doing very well thanks to quick intervention at the first signs of the illness.  If you witness troubling behavior in your son (obsessing over food, diet, exercise, or self-injuring), don’t automatically discount the possibility of an eating disorder simply because he’s not a teenage, white, upper-middle class girl. Eating disorders can affect anyone and, as with most problems, early intervention can help.

Creative positive thinking needs to start early: 9 Ways to Encourage Healthy Attitudes About Food

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