What It's Like To Be A Man Struggling With An Eating Disorder

"People think that men who get eating disorders are different — that they are not 'real men' or are particularly effeminate."

Eating disorders are gender neutral, but as they more commonly affect women, they are unfortunately discussed as solely "female issues." This conversation, however, largely leaves out the 10 million American men who suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 

"I think it is a belief among the general public that eating disorders are only a problem of women and that eating disorders are about restriction and drive for thinness, which are not traditional concerns of men," Dr. Michael Lutter, a psychiatrist at the Eating Recovery Center, told A Plus. "In general, we need to dispel the myth that eating disorders are mostly about young, well-to-do, White girls who want to be thin for attention. Eating disorders are biologically driven illnesses that affect all ages, ethnic groups, and genders."



Eating disorders in both men and women can be trigged by psychological or cultural pressures. For men, some of the cultural pressures include the desire to fit into the "ideal" male body type. 

"In recent years there has definitely been an increase in pressure to be muscular and lean or 'ripped'. I think the desire to have low body fat has definitely increased restrictive dieting and the elimination of fats and carbohydrates from the diet," Dr. Lutter said. 

Mike Focus / Shutterstock
Mike Focus / Shutterstock

Eating disorders are associated with multiple health risks and vary from disease to disease. "Anorexia nervosa is associated with damage to almost every organ system in the body, including bones, heart, brain, and digestive track," he said. "Recurrent purging in disorders like Bulimia nervosa is associated with electrolyte imbalances, leading to potential heart arrhythmias, tooth decay, and esophageal tearing. Binge eating episodes are linked to metabolic disorders like diabetes."

Some of the warning signs of eating disorders include secretive eating patterns, eating alone, avoiding social situations where food may be served, or lack of flexibility surrounding meals. 

Unfortunately, many men and women who suffer from eating disorders don't seek treatment. "Research studies have clearly demonstrated that the prevalence of eating disorders in the general public are much higher than we see in treatment centers," Dr. Lutter said.

"I think that lack of awareness and stigma are the two biggest factors that discourage men from receiving treatment."

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Colin, a man who received treatment at the Eating Recovery Center, and asked to use a pseudonym for this article, struggled with anorexia nervosa for 15 years.

"I showed signs of disordered eating in my pre-teen years and then during my freshman year of college, I developed full-blown anorexia," he told A Plus. "Day-to-day life was very numb. I starved myself. I liked that I didn't feel much, and I liked that I could control the shape and weight of my body. It helped me to not feel the pain that I was dealing with." 

Some of Colin's friends and family knew about his eating disorder, but didn't know how to give him the support he needed. 

"A lot of people questioned whether or not I really had an eating disorder because I am a man," he said. "The majority of people wondered why I couldn't 'just eat.'  Some friends thought I needed to 'get it together,' and could not understand why I could not make that happen. Other friends walked away from me altogether." 

Throughout his struggle, Colin felt he was subjected to a different stigma than women with anorexia. 

"My experience was that people think that men who get eating disorders are different — that they are not 'real men' or are particularly effeminate," he said. "People thought I was being vain and would tell me how horrible I looked, thinking that it would encourage me to 'just eat.' It was a very lonely and isolating place for me."  

So, Colin tried to over-compensate to appear hyper-masculine. "I wanted others to see all of the masculine things that I enjoyed doing, so they would see that I am like other men." 

At his lowest point, Colin's body started shutting down due to malnutrition, which finally caused him to seek treatment. 

"Life had become so bleak and seemed so hopeless that I was hoping for my heart to stop, but also knew that I had to live so that I wouldn't abandon my family by way of my own death," he said. "I thought that treatment might be able to help me not have to live a life that was so bleak and hopeless. I worked with various treatment professionals to find treatment centers that would accept men. I was able to find a few, and picked the one that I thought would be the best for fostering and supporting my recovery." 

He was set up with a support system that included a therapist, dietitian, medical doctor, and psychiatrist. He also participated in therapy groups with other eating disorder survivors which he notes were a big help in supporting his recovery.

For anyone else struggling with an eating disorder, Colin offers this advice: "Do not quit — ever!  The light at the end of the tunnel is not always visible from every place on the recovery journey, but if you keep putting the work in — keeping appointments, working through the tough issues — that light will become visible one day and you will emerge from the other side of the tunnel." 

While the statistics surrounding men with eating disorders paint an alarming picture alone, it's stories like Colin's that can leave a lasting impact on the people who hear them. Too often, their voices aren't heard. To help de-stigmatize these disorders, it's important that men who have survived anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder share their experiences. In general, the conversation surrounding eating disorders needs to include the 10 million men in the U.S. who struggle to raise awareness, correct misconceptions, and show others they're not alone. Sometimes, just that last bit is enough to help someone get the treatment they need. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with an eating disorder, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org. In addition, the National Association of Males with Eating Disorders (NAMED) is an organization that provides resources specifically for men battling this disease. 

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