Doctor is In | Making it known: eating disorders in men

Eating disorders are often seen through the lens of a young woman, both in society and health care. This bias has created hardships for men who suffer from these disorders in terms of seeking help and receiving treatment.

When people think of someone with an eating disorder, most picture a young woman. However, a study completed in 2007 found that males constitute 25 percent of anorexia and bulimia cases. This number may be much higher, as the stigma surrounding eating disorders in males has led to many being underdiagnosed and undertreated.

Diagnosing eating disorders

 Dated clinical studies along with societal and cultural stigmas all contribute to the underdiagnosis and undertreatment of men with disordered eating. Historically, the criteria used for diagnosing and treating eating disorders has been based on female-centered research and clinical presentations. One of the signs previously used for diagnosing was “amenorrhea,” or a lack of menstrual cycle/period. Today, the need for more male-inclusive studies is desperately needed. While research on the subject is mounting, it still has a long way to go.

Eating disorders in men often present in different ways. They may experience a strong drive to gain weight by building muscle rather than losing weight. In cases of bulimia, women usually self-induce vomiting or use laxatives, while men are much more likely to exercise excessively. This can make the eating disorder harder to diagnose, as men — especially athletes — fit our society’s definition of healthy and appear fit.

It has also been reported that binge eating in men is associated with less feelings of being out of control and is often triggered by anger. Some other factors that contribute to eating disorders in men include the societal and cultural standards of masculinity, gender role expectations, and social media portrayal of an “ideal” body shape. There are a variety of ways an eating disorder may present in males, but behaviors specific to male athletes include mealtime isolation, food obsessions, and rigid eating.

Treating an eating disorder

When it comes to treating eating disorders, a whole-person approach should be used. The National Eating Disorders Association recommends a gender-sensitive approach, stating, “Recognition of different needs and dynamics for males is critical in effective treatment. Men and boys in treatment can feel out of place when predominantly surrounded by women, and an all-male treatment environment is recommended — when possible.”

While eating disorders are typically more common in women, there are still a significant number of men who are affected. It is critical that men can receive the help they require without fear of ridicule. To ensure this, health care professionals must educate themselves about this topic and be able to and recognize different ways men may present with an eating disorder to guide people who are struggling to the appropriate resources. It is a provider’s responsibility to put an end to the stigma.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or recognize that your relationship with food/exercise has been problematic, seeking help is the first step. Please talk with your healthcare provider about what treatment options are right for you.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, please get help. Call 911 or if you want to talk to someone, dial the National Suicide Hotline Number: 1-800-273-8255.

-Lauren Duncalf, she/her/hers, 3rd Year Pharmacy Student, Class of 2024

-Natalie Boyer, she/her/hers, 2nd Year Pharmacy Student, Class of 2025

-Olivia Kulaszewicz, she/her/hers, 2nd Year Pharmacy Student, Class of 2025

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.