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An Insight into Eating Disorders in Men

A post from my friend and writer/blogger Laura Chapman.

Like most people I had always associated eating disorders with women, but that was until two of my male friends disclosed to me that they were struggling with their relationship with food. Thankfully, both are now on the road to recovery after seeking specialist help, but sharing their experiences with me really made me realize how different eating disorders are for men, both in terms of how they develop and how they are best overcome.

When athletic pursuits lead to bulimia

One of my closest friends, let’s call him Tom, had always been very athletic. Tom was a keen runner and when he wasn’t training at the track he was at the gym. I’d noticed he had stepped up his training, as it was becoming increasingly difficult to arrange a catch up over dinner due his athletic commitments, but I didn’t think too much of it, as I knew he had several important events coming up. So it was a shock that when we next met Tom told me he had been in hospital the previous week. It turns out he collapsed while out running one day and doctors found levels of salts in his blood were dangerously low. Apparently the medical team investigated various possibilities for his electrolyte imbalance, but when they drew a blank they asked Tom whether he was abusing laxatives, at which point he reluctantly told them that yes he was. Tom then turned to me and said he was battling bulimia. He put it down to the pressure of staying lean to give him the competitive edge and found he got into a binge-purge cycle, as this was easier than restricting his intake when he had such high training demands, even if these were self-imposed. So like many men it wasn’t simply an issue about appearance for Tom and recent research from Southern Utah University shows that male runners are at particular risk of eating disorders and rarely seek help.

It was reassuring to hear that the team at the hospital had referred Tom to an intensive outpatient program. I’m glad, as since Tom told me about his eating disorder, I’ve read an article by that explains how men are less likely to seek help, but need specialist support just as much as women. Tom admits himself that if he hadn’t collapsed that day, he doesn’t know what it would have taken for him to tell someone about his struggle with food, exercise and laxative use. He was acutely aware that eating disorders are viewed as a condition that affect women, so this discouraged him from seeking help, and it seems like he is not alone, as the National Association of Eating Disorders highlights this as a major barrier to men getting the diagnosis they need.

During the course of his structured treatment Tom received one-to-one counseling, guidance on retraining his eating and exercise habits, and attended group sessions with other men battling an eating disorder. While Tom acknowledged all components were essential, he found the support groups particularly helpful, as they showed that he wasn’t the only man going through this. Two years on, Tom still attends a weekly meeting, as while I’m here to listen and empathize, it isn’t a substitute. While it’s not possible to turn back the clock, Tom genuinely believes that if he had known such groups were available, bulimia might not have taken over. These groups are available outside of formal treatment programs, making them accessible to anyone and as they are often run in the evening they allow you to keep your daytime commitments.

When anorexia affects men

It was last summer that I found out that another male friend, who I’ll call Justin, was also battling an eating disorder. This time it was anorexia nervosa and a report in the LA Times was the trigger for him to broach the subject with me. Using the article as a talking point, Justin told me like the boys in the article, his issues with food started at high school. Thinking back to high school, I remember Justin had carried more weight than the man sat beside me and I have since learned from an informative piece by Brown University that young men who are overweight are more likely to develop an eating disorder. Justin had always been one of the quieter members of our friendship group, which I’d just assumed was because he was shy, but it turns out he was very conscious of his weight and this had a big impact on his self-esteem, which is apparently another risk factor for eating disorders among men.

By the time Justin told me about his anorexia, he was already well on the way with his treatment program, as he hadn’t felt able to confide in many people till he was making progress. Earlier in the year he apparently had an inpatient stay to receive intensive input and was now continuing his therapy as an outpatient. By his accounts he was doing well, rebuilding his relationship with food and gradually regaining weight. I asked how best I could help. Justin suggested downloading a copy of the National Eating Disorder Association toolkit, which his therapist advised he encourage family and friends to read. Although the information is applicable to eating disorders in general, it dispels common myths, provides practical suggestions and is an ideal starting point for anyone keen to support a loved one. While input from eating disorder specialists is essential to aid recovery, Justin was finding that help from friends and family was going a long way, so educating those close to you is a key issue for anyone seeking recovery.

To read more from and learn more about our guest blogger, visit Laura Chapman’s website.

Additionally, you can download my (Polly’s) ebook called

How to Help a Friend with Bulimia