Can Males Have Eating Disorders Too?

By Ayanna DeVance, reviewed by Lauren Ranley, MS, RD, LDN

Despite popular belief, men suffer from eating disorders, and subclinical disordered behaviors (such as binge eating, purging, consuming laxatives, and weight loss) occur as commonly in men as women. Due to social stigma and stereotypes, boys and adult men are frequently misdiagnosed and undertreated for eating disorders. Boys develop eating disorders at a younger age than girls, with an average age of onset of 13 for boys compared to 14 for girls. Parents, educators, and coaches benefit from understanding the warning signs and symptoms of disordered eating in boys and how to address the problem successfully.

Male Eating Disorders: What Causes Them?

Several factors contribute to the occurrence of eating disorders in men. The demand to be physically fit and attractive has historically been directed at girls but is increasingly applied to boys. Look at action figures with muscular chests and shoulders, portraying an unrealistic body image. Consider advertisements in which males are portrayed as the masculine equivalents of supermodels: thin, fit, or cut and buff. Unattainable beauty standards exist for men and lead to insecurities and unworthiness.

Boys and men frequently compare themselves to images of influential figures and feel inadequate. Feelings of insecurity lead men to develop eating disorders, such as anorexia, exercise bulimia, and muscle dysmorphia characterized by excessive diets and training regimes.

Boys feel pressured to be physically strong during adolescence, often before their bodies can support the ideal body image they see in the media. To make matters worse, boys naturally lag behind girls in terms of growth during a time when males compete with one another for sexual attractiveness. Boys agonize over their appearance in the same way that girls do.

The Influence of Sports on Male Eating Disorders

Although sports involvement can be a great way for a child to stay physically fit and boost his self-esteem, the emphasis on body weight, body shape, and the expectation to “win” can lead to stress and a lot of pressure. Boys are more likely than girls to give in to the pressure to reduce or gain weight in order to achieve peak performance in sports, or even to be eligible to compete in them at all.

Here are some tips for coaches designed to help them prevent disordered eating in the athletes they train

  1. Stop weighing your athletes and avoid making weight-related comments. Instead, stress healthy training workouts and strategies for them to improve their mental acuity while playing. 
  2. Teach your teammates about the signs of an eating disorder, such as overtraining, not eating with the team, and fatigue. 
  3. Remind your players of the health hazards of being underweight, as well as that losing body fat does not always improve athletic performance. 
  4. If you suspect an eating disorder, refer your athlete to a mental health expert with experience diagnosing and treating eating disorders.

Considerations for Therapy

Regarding treatment, no single strategy is more effective than the others. To offer a successful therapeutic environment for any individual, biological and cultural aspects must be considered. 

According to studies, eating disorders lead to more fatalities in males than females, making early intervention crucial. 

Effective treatment requires a gender-sensitive approach that recognizes men’s different needs and dynamics. Men and boys in treatment may feel out of place if they are surrounded primarily by women. Thus an all-male therapeutic atmosphere is preferred when possible. 

Although there is still a long way to go in portraying eating disorders as diseases that affect both men and women, positive evidence shows that males can recover from eating disorders. On the other hand, men are taught an entirely different set of beauty standards, and their eating disorders emerge in various ways, necessitating specialist treatment that considers these cultural gender disparities. The sooner we discard the stereotype that eating disorders only affect a specific set of people, the sooner we can reduce stigma, increase access to treatment, and ensure a bright future for all eating disorder patients.

Men’s Body Image and Eating Disorders: What You Can Do?

At an early age you can:

  1. Help boys realize they don’t have to be muscular or the “best” athlete to fit in.
  2. When it comes to recognizing what is valuable about oneself, help boys understand that their focus of control should be on the inside, not on the outside.
  3. Assist boys in overcoming their preoccupation with their appearance during puberty by teaching them to embrace their bodies as they are. Assist them in focusing on areas of their personality other than their appearance.
  4. Assist boys in understanding that most forms of power do not come with big muscles or a “might makes right” mentality.

Due to a lack of understanding and education, people cannot recognize symptoms and unhelpful behaviors in males, preventing early intervention, support, and the path to recovery. Many symptoms are readily disregarded and frequently neglected. Most risk factors, such as bullying, trauma, dieting, or perfectionism, apply equally to men and women. As a result, educating people about the major risks that affect men just as much as women is critical. Furthermore, encouraging a culture that encourages males to be vulnerable is important in reducing stigmas and opening up the discourse. Encouraging men to tell their stories to raise public awareness and therapy can be the first step toward supporting those in need of recovery.