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Men & Eating Disorders

It is a common misconception that eating disorders only affect women. The reality is that eating disorders affect both men and women, boys and girls. 

Historically, men affected by eating disorders have been under-diagnosed, under-recognised and under-treated. In fact, at present, there are no medical guidelines specifically for men experiencing eating disorders.

A belief that eating disorders are a ‘female problem/illness’ is part of the stigma faced by men. It may take some men months or years to acknowledge their experiences as being that of an eating disorder. This can delay help-seeking and lead to the illness becoming more entrenched.

Some may hide the issue from others due to a fear of a negative reaction – being laughed at, judged or misunderstood. Some men may not seek help until they reach crisis point or following a marked deterioration in health. Others may recognise the problem more gradually. Isolation amongst those affected by eating disorders is common.

When trying to understand and/or support a man with an eating disorder it can be helpful to be mindful that eating disorders can present in different ways in males and that there are certain risk factors that are more ‘male-oriented’ to be aware of. However, in terms of treatment and the recovery process, anyone experiencing an eating disorder needs help and support to embark on, and continue with, the journey of recovery. Men, like women, need emotional, informational and social support.

In recent years, extreme dieting and purging has increased amongst men. As well as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, men are affected by muscle dysmorphia and other muscle-related eating issues.

  • Muscularity disordered attitudes and behaviours
  • A focus on muscular leanness
  • Sporadic binge episodes perceived to increase muscularity
  • A drive to gain weight, in the form of muscularity
  • Over-regulation of protein consumption
  • Protein-centric binge episodes
  • Depression and shame
  • Excessive exercise to compensate for caloric intake
  • A ‘runaway diet’
  • Muscle dysmorphia
  • Use of steroids and growth hormones
There are many reasons why people develop eating disorders and often the combination of events, feelings and pressures is what leaves a person feeling unable to cope.

For men, specific risk factors include:

  • Body concerns, body dissatisfaction, body checking behaviours
  • A history of dieting
  • Excessive concern with fitness
  • Compulsive exercise or over-exercise
  • Dependence on exercise to manage emotions
  • Participation in sports that feature endurance, for example distance running or cycling
  • Sports that emphasise aesthetics or have a specific weight focus
  • Employment in roles that have a focus on aesthetic appearance
  • High levels of perfectionism
  • Intense need for approval
  • Social appearance anxiety
  • Difficulties managing intense emotions
  • Childhood history of overweight/obesity
  • Childhood history of bullying related to size or appearance
  • Past history of eating disorder or muscle dysmorphia
    Muscle building and fat-burning supplement use
  • Preoccupation with becoming more lean and muscular
  • Continuing to work despite pain or acute injuries
  • Experience of shame, guilt or depression if unable to train

Some men may experience severe distress due to a form of body image disturbance known as Muscle Dysmorphia. A person with this disorder may become obsessed with the belief that they are not muscular enough, despite the fact that they may in fact be above average in terms of muscle mass. Often the person will engage in intensive over-exercising and other harmful behaviours in an effort to develop their physique. Muscle dysmorphia is a very specific type of body dysmorphic disorder and should be addressed with the support of a medical professional.

The misconception that eating disorders are a ‘female issue’ can sometimes make it harder for a man to acknowledge to himself or others that there is a problem of this nature. This in turn can mean that a man is less likely to seek support and help for an eating disorder or related issue.

Combating this stigma with an understanding that an eating disorder is a serious mental health issue that develops for numerous reasons and is not just about food, weight and appearance, is the first step to being able to encourage and facilitate a man seeking out the help and support he needs to let this disorder go.

It is important to remember that the earlier treatment is sought, the earlier a person may move towards recovery. All eating disorders involve physical, psychological, behavioural and emotional aspects and as such for treatment to be effective for both men and women, all of these need to be addressed in some way.

If you are concerned about taking the first step towards recovery, the non-judgmental support provided by Bodywhys services and our treatment guide could be a helpful starting point. 

Men and Eating Disorders – Bodywhys Webinar