The term eating disorder is commonly associated with younger women, even though research has shown that eating disorder symptoms and behaviors also occur in women over 50. However, this stereotype that eating disorders only appear in females is a misconception. Studies have shown that eating disorders do not discriminate, with males also suffering from this potentially lethal disease. Some studies have shown that males account for an estimated 5 to 15 percent of patients with anorexia or bulimia. Symptoms of binge-eating disorder are displayed in 35 percent of males. In males, especially boys and young men, these illnesses create a distorted sense of body image. For males, this distortion is often in the form of muscle dysmorphia, a type of disorder characterized by an extreme concern with becoming more muscular.
For boys and young men with muscle dysmorphia and related disorders, they want to lose weight or gain weight in order to “bulk up.” Young men who believe they are physically too small may actually start using anabolic steroids or other dangerous substances in an attempt to increase their body’s muscle mass. Eating disorders and muscle dysmorphia are listed separately in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, the occurrence of these disorders is often seen as a collection of related behaviors. Both are the direct result of over-evaluating an idealized body type, which fuels either a drive for leanness, muscle mass or both. These eating disorders and body image distortions can give rise to disordered eating behaviors in boys, young males or even older men. Yet, in pop culture and society at large, muscular bodies are encouraged for boys. In American sports, being lean and muscular is seen as a beneficial attribute for nearly all sports. In fact, in certain athletic activities such as wrestling and gymnastics, severe weight and eating control is almost encouraged. So how do parents and loved one identify what is healthy versus unhealthy eating in boys and young men?
One question to ask is whether the person with the potential eating disorder is prone to anxiety, depression and perfectionistic tendencies. Other warning signs include people who have been bullied, felt too skinny or have struggled with their weight. These are all contributing factors for boys to develop some type of eating disorder. People should also consider their family’s personal history when considering whether or not a loved one is struggling with some form of muscle dysmorphia or related eating disorder. Risks are increased if there is a family history of eating disorder behaviors or anxiety issues. What are the family norms surrounding food and body image? Adults in a family are often the role models for their children. If discussions of weight and body shaming are frequent topics, kids will notice. From a mental health standpoint, the goal is to have a healthy sense of self and body. Excessive behaviors are usually a sign of a deeper issue. With this in mind, here are four warning signs to watch for in boys and young males:
- Engaging in extreme dieting.
- Quickly losing or gaining body weight.
- Obsessing over dieting.
- Binge eating and vomiting.
The presence of these behaviors could indicate that an eating disorder is developing. If this is the case, it is better for an individual to receive treatment as soon as possible. Earlier treatment has a better likelihood of success since these disordered behaviors will have less time to become entrenched habits. The concern is not only for the boy’s emotional health, but also for his physical health. Good physical fitness is great, but obsessive behaviors and perfectionism are not. If all signs point to a problematic body image and the existence of an eating disorder, it is beneficial to see a mental health professional who specializes in treating these conditions. Sadly, this topic is rarely talked about among young males. There is still a stigma surrounding publicly discussing mental illness. An additional stigma exists due to the fact that eating disorders are still seen as a women’s issue.
For additional questions about eating disorders in boys and young men, contact the staff at River Centre Clinic. Their programs provide a full range of treatment options for children and adults with a primary diagnosis of an eating disorder. For immediate and confidential feedback, take River Centre Clinic’s EAT-26 (Eating Attitudes Test) assessment. It is a widely cited standardized self-report screening measure that can help determine whether an individual has an eating disorder that requires professional treatment.
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