Although eating disorders are frequently portrayed as an illness that only affects women, in actual fact about one out of every ten people diagnosed with an eating disorder is male. Over the last decade, Britain alone has experienced a 66% increase in hospital admissions of men with eating disorders. Anorexia still has the highest mortality rate out of any other mental illness, and is no less deadly for men than it is for women. Disturbingly, it is this very stigma attached to eating disorders that may at least partially explain the high levels of under-diagnosis in men. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Collaboration estimates that males could represent up to 25% of the people with eating disorders.
So what are men most at risk of? Both men and women are more likely to develop anorexia or bulimia nervosa in their teens and early twenties, whereas other eating disorders – such as binge eating disorder – usually presents in the mid-twenties. Eating disorders are complicated, and there is certainly no one cause they can be attributed to. There have been indications that male athletes are at a greater risk, especially those involved in sports that place greater importance on weight classes or body types. Preoccupation or anxiety over muscularity may present in males, much in the same way that females with eating disorders have heightened concerns about thinness. There are also indications that there is a higher prevalence of eating disorders among men who are gay or bisexual, but this is a complex relationship related to a multitude of factors.
Three of the most prevalent risk factors include genetic vulnerability, psychological factors and sociocultural influences. The latter can influence men in a variety of ways and harmful messages. These include the idea of there only being one ‘acceptable’ body type, conflation of looking a certain way with other successes in life, a need to be in control (even if at the expense of their mental health), and the cultural idea that eating disorders are not ‘masculine’. This last factor may at least partly explain the barriers to diagnosis and treatment that many men encounter.
Although complicated, there are some early symptoms of eating disorders that are more likely to present in males, including:
- A fixation on exercise, especially weight lifting and muscle building
- Engaging in risky behaviour, such as exercising when injured or using anabolic steroids
- Stress or anxiety over missed workouts
- Disinterest or fear about sex
- Lowered testosterone
Although a complicated and extremely harmful disease, an eating disorder can be fully recovered from with a combination of mental health treatment and education services. Indeed, education about health and body image is one way that this silent epidemic can be tackled for both young men and women. If you or someone you know if struggling with an eating disorder or body image, speak to your GP or a counsellor about getting in contact with treatment services.