Not For Girls Only: Eating Disorders
Affect Growing Numbers of Boys
When confronted with the words “eating disorder,” most people envision an emaciated teen girl or an abnormally thin young woman. Though images like these are far from incorrect (experts estimate that as many as 90 percent of individuals with eating disorders are female), they ignore the reality that thousands of boys and young men also suffer from these conditions.
As more and more boys become affected by body-image concerns, treatment officials are seeing a substantial rise in male patients seeking help for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders.
Though the causes of eating disorders are often complex and mysterious, the director of the eating disorder program at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin believes that one of the primary culprits could be the mixed messages that boys and young men are getting about what constitutes a healthy diet and a properly developed body.
“In addition to concern about heart disease and health and obesity, males are getting really distorted messages about their bodies,” Dr. Theodore Weltzin said during a Feb. 24, 2006, segment of ABC’s Good Morning America. “And [they are] going to extremes to try to deal with that.”
WARNING SIGNS FOR BOYS
Eating disorders are intensely personal diseases with a wide and complicated range of causes, triggers, and manifestations. As Dr. Howard Markel wrote in the July 25, 2000 edition of The New York Times, “It is difficult to comprehend the complex dynamics that lead to self-inflicted starvation, the vicious cycle begun by limiting food intake to the point that the brain no longer senses hunger, followed by the inexorable damage to the muscles, heart, kidneys and other organs.”
However, as Dr. Markel also noted in the same article, “Thanks to a better understanding of anorexia and other eating disorders, early recognition, and concerted efforts by physicians, mental health professionals and – most important – family members, this deadly disorder can be conquered.”
Though the specifics of the disease vary among sufferers, commonalities of symptoms and behaviors do exist – and the early identification of these indicators may literally be a matter of life and death for the boys and young men who are afflicted with these self-destructive conditions.
The following are among the “red flags” cited by several experts as signs that a boy may have developed an eating disorder:
- He loses significant amounts of weight or, in the case of developing adolescents, fails to gain weight for an extended period of time.
- He makes excuses to skip meals, and when he does eat, he often plays with his food, cuts it into tiny pieces, and actually ingests very little.
- He follows a highly restrictive diet and allows himself only limited portions of very few foods.
- He demonstrates an unhealthy focus on how much he weighs.
- He becomes obsessed with exercise.
- He becomes angry or upset when questioned or confronted about his eating and exercise habits.
- His skin becomes unusually dry; the hair on his head becomes thin and brittle; and soft, downy hairs begin to grow on his chest, arms, and legs.
- He often complains about being cold or tired.
- He starts wearing oversized, baggy clothes (often done to hide the effects of his disease from others).
- He makes frequent judgmental comments about the sizes and shapes of other people’s bodies.
OBSTACLES TO TREATMENT
In addition to being difficult to identify (for example, does the boy who drops 15 pounds between football season and the start of track practice have an eating disorder, or simply a healthy desire to do his best at two very different sports?), boys with eating disorders also face hurdles when it comes to treatment and recovery.
In her April 17, 2007 article in the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein observed that the two most common obstacles are boys’ reluctance to seek help and doctors’ unfamiliarity with the conditions in male patients.
“Society sees this as a girl’s disease,” Lynn Grefe, chief executive of the National Eating Disorders Association told Bernstein. “If a guy suffers, he’s embarrassed.”
Bernstein also cited a study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as indicative of the relative dearth of research into eating disorders in boys and men. The UNC analysis of 25 years worth of clinical trials for eating disorders (1980 to 2005) revealed the following:
- The 32 clinical trials for anorexia that were analyzed at UNC included 816 female subjects and 23 males.
- The 47 studies of bulimia that the UNC researchers reviewed involved 2,985 females and 69 males.
- In the 26 studies of binge eating disorder that were evaluated, participants included 1,008 females and 87 males.
- The eight medication studies on anorexia that were part of the UNC review included 293 females and only one male.
Cynthia Bulik, one of the authors of the UNC study, told Bernstein that her team’s review indicates a significant shortcoming on behalf of the medical profession. “We have abandoned men,” Bulik said.
HELP IS AVAILABLE
Though, as the UNC study indicated, researchers and treatment professionals in the field of eating disorders previously focused their attention primarily on girls and young women, that trend is changing as awareness increases among patients, parents, and doctors.
In Granger, Texas, for example, the Austin Sendero residential treatment facility offers individualized treatment plans specifically designed to meet the needs of both women and men who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders.
According to the facility’s website, the Austin Sendero staff is dedicated to addressing the individual needs of all patients: “Our experienced treatment team understands the importance of flexibility and authenticity in all aspects of treatment. Our treatment team has been selected based on their knowledge and compassion for individuals – both male and female – struggling with eating disorders and their own personal commitment to a healthy lifestyle.”
Brad Kennington, the executive director of Austin Sendero, told the Wall Street Journal that efforts such as single-sex recovery groups can offer considerable benefits by allowing men to discuss topics that would be difficult for them to address in co-ed situations. The men’s groups, Kennington said, “provide a safe place, a way for men to come in and talk about issues relevant to men.”
Opportunities such as the ones that are offered at Austin Sendero are likely to become more plentiful as cases of boys and men with eating disorders continue to increase. But as experts like Jenny Langley would be quick to note, heightened awareness and a willingness to access these treatment options are the keys to fighting this spreading scourge.
“Growing boys can lose weight incredibly quickly, resulting in potentially long term damage to organs,” Langley wrote on her website, Boys Get Anorexia Too. “[And] eating disorders can quickly become a way of life. The earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the more likely there is to be a quicker and more successful recovery.”