Parents: First Line of Defense for Male Children With Eating Disorders

A common misperception about eating disorders is that these serious illnesses only affect women. In reality, eating disorders can and do affect men and boys.

While previous estimates suggested that approximately 10% of individuals with eating disorders were male, a recent Harvard study found that approximately 25% of people suffering from eating disorders are male. (Hudson et al, 2007)

There are many factors contributing to the rising incidence of eating disorders are many factors. Most notably, our popular culture promotes unrealistic and impossible body ideals for men as well as women. The emerging male body ideal is excessively muscular and very trim. While these images are splashed across magazines, television and the internet, even our society’s youngest men are exposed to this body ideal.

Take action figures, for example. These figures depict almost comically muscles with wholly unrealistic proportions. Men and boys who develop eating disorders are generally more vulnerable to the ideals promoted by popular culture. Even if a full-syndrome eating disorder doesn’t develop, body dissatisfaction is another common byproduct of this exposure.

Trust you intuition. If an eating disorder concern arises in a male child, don’t wait to get help.

Sadly, it’s not just the general public that is susceptible to the misconception that males cannot have anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or related eating and body image issues. Many competent and well-meaning medical and mental health professionals routinely overlook this diagnosis in men and boys due to these gender constructs.

As a result, parents can be a first line of defense in preventing eating disorders in their young male children, and/or intervene early if their boys are developing troublesome behaviors related to food, eating and body image. Knowledge is power when it comes to understanding eating disorders and addressing these serious mental illnesses.

  • Many males with eating disorders have a history of obesity or overweight, often with experiences of weight-related teasing or bullying.1
  • Puberty is a particularly common time for onset of an eating disorder. The body changes in young men during this developmental phase are significant—boys gain an average of 50 to 60 pounds and grow 12 to 14 inches during this time!2
  • Young children with eating disorders are more likely to be males than adolescents with eating disorders, who are likely to be female. Selective (“picky”) eaters are more likely to be boys than girls, and the syndrome has been associated with later development of anorexia nervosa.3
  • Autism spectrum disorders, sensory integration issues, medical comorbidities (including type one diabetes), and character traits (obsessive, anxious, easily overstimulated/distracted) have been found to be risk factors for the development of an eating disorder in males.4
  • Purposeful restriction is the most common eating disorder behavior displayed by men (96 percent). Other eating disorder behaviors used by males include over-exercise, purging (including laxative abuse) and bingeing.5

By understanding these realities of eating disorders in men and boys, parents can support identification and treatment of eating disorders in their male children.

Delayed treatment gives the eating disorder more time to become engrained in the young man’s life, and can result in serious medical and psychiatric instability. In fact, one study found that half of all male patients were sick enough to be admitted to the hospital for stabilization at the time they sought treatment. While saddening, this finding isn’t surprising, since eating disorders are more likely to be overlooked in boys, delaying diagnosis and effective treatment.

Learn more about anorexia in males.



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