Typically, eating disorders are perceived to be illnesses which solely affect women, with the most common association being with girls and young women. However a growing number of boys and young men are developing anorexia and bulimia at an alarming rate.
According to official statistics one in ten sufferers are male – a conservative estimate, since fewer males seek treatment for eating disorders than females. For those who are children or adolescents the signs can go undetected for some time, more often getting to crisis point before diagnosis.
Despite the focus being centered on girls and young women, it’s wrong to assume that boys and young men are any less worried about their bodies. A recent study by from the University College London Institute of Child Health and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine discovered that two thirds of girls and four in 10 boys suffered some level of anxiety about putting on weight, as reported on the Huffington Post UKlast month. In the same study the authors found that 26% of girls and one in seven boys had restricted their food intake by fasting, skipping meals or throwing away food, during the last three months. Although boys represent the minority, the figures are telling that the fear of gaining weight is not necessarily gender bias.
Identifying the signs of anorexia in males of any age are similar to those in females, except they may be expressed differently. For instance, while a female might be concerned with waist or thigh measurements and overall weight, a male may focus on getting some particular muscle group to show through, ‘rock hard abs’ being a common one. Both genders will try to alter their body to work towards some ‘ideal’ as they perceive it. (I must add that body image may not be the main contributing factor for everyone with an eating disorder, of course!)
If you are concerned about someone, here are some of the key signs to look out for:
• Distorted body image – Frequent weighing, narcissistic behaviour, comments about being overweight, out of shape and/or conscious on their size.
• Obsessive exercise – Focus on certain body parts and body ‘sculpting,’ using exercise to burn calories.
• Preoccupation with food or calories – this can be supplements or calorie count or obsessive concern about a diet plan. Reliance on food supplements in replacement of meals (e.g. protein shakes) can be another sign.
• Fear about gaining weight – this can be overall weight or focused on ‘fat weight’ verses muscle mass. In some cases purging, abusing laxatives and/or diuretics to shed weight.
• Perfectionism – uses weight and body image as a way to feel better about other problems and seems intolerant of slip-ups.
One of the main differences between eating disorders in boys and in girls is the isolation. Usually, girls are more likely to share their ‘successes’ and talk about diets/exercise, while boys often exhibit withdrawal and social avoidance. They may feel they aren’t good enough to merit social activities and relationships.
Delaying treatment for an eating disorder can lead to complex health implications. In the worst case scenario anorexia and bulimia can be fatal and has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses.
This article first appeared on ‘Huffington Post’ on 6 January 2014.