They may exercise for hours, count calories compulsively or wolf down food in secret and then try to control their weight by swallowing laxatives.
But they're not women. They're men and boys with eating disorders—and there are far more of them than many people imagine. By some estimates, 1 out of every 10 of the millions of people in this country with eating disorders is male, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Like their female counterparts, males can develop any of these three potentially life-threatening eating disorders:
Anorexia nervosa. People with this disorder deny their hunger and refuse to eat—even after extreme weight loss—and can slowly waste away.
Bulimia nervosa. This disorder is characterized by out-of-control eating followed by drastic attempts to purge the body of excess calories. After gorging on food, people with bulimia may intentionally vomit, exercise excessively, fast, or use laxatives or diuretics.
Binge eating. People in this group compulsively overeat. They may rapidly consume thousands of calories, even if they are uncomfortably full.
Some of the same things that put women at risk for eating disorders also make men vulnerable: low self-esteem, a tendency toward perfectionism and anxiety, genetics, and cultural pressures to look a certain way.
But while women often feel pressured to look like super-slim models, men with eating disorders frequently try to resemble images of ripped men with six-pack abs. Consequently, males may be more likely than females to exercise compulsively, as well as use steroids or other risky drugs to try to change the shape of their bodies, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Or they might start semi-starving themselves in order to perform better in a sport where a trim weight is crucial, such as wrestling, and find it nearly impossible to eat normally again.
Still another difference between the sexes: Compared to females, males are less likely to seek help for an eating disorder, according to ANAD. And families and friends may be less likely to suspect an eating disorder in males than in females.
Treatment helps—the earlier, the better
There are a variety of treatment options for eating disorders, according to the NIMH. For both males and females, these options may include:
- Talk therapy to overcome a distorted body image and address the emotional issues (such as low self-esteem and depression) that often contribute to eating disorders.
- Nutritional counseling to help establish healthy ways of eating.
- Medication such as antidepressants.
The earlier treatment begins, the more effective it is likely to be, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. That's why it is so important to always remember that males are not immune to eating disorders and to be familiar with these red flags of a disorder:
- Being preoccupied with one's body or weight.
- Obsessing about calories, food or cooking.
- Dieting constantly, even when thin.
- Misusing laxatives, diuretics or diet pills.
- Frequently losing or gaining weight.
- Exercising compulsively.
- Withdrawing from relationships and avoiding social situations.
- Heading to the bathroom shortly after eating.
If someone you care about might have an eating disorder, tell a doctor right away. You can also call the National Eating Disorders Helpline at 800.931.2237.