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Boys and Eating Disorders

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

A male adolescent is brought to my office by his father because he has not been eating and is losing weight. The father is alarmed and the boy, quite intelligent and serious, admits that a problem has developed but does not know how or why. What is fascinating about this adolescent is the fact that he is tall and athletic and is on his High School varsity football team during the fall months and is on the varsity High School track team during the spring. He also plays tennis, ice skates, is popular among the girls, has many male friends and gets the grade of A in all of his classes. In fact, it is his dream and goal to become a medical doctor which he should be able to achieve. Yet, he appears to suffer from Anorexia Nervosa. Aren’t girls the only people who develop eating disorders, particularly anorexia? Why do boys develop anorexia?

According to the National Institute of Health ten percent of those with anorexia nervosa are boys. The Stanford University School of Medicine recently published an article stating that the existence of eating disorders in boys is often overlooked in boys because they do not present the symptoms typical of eating disorders. Boys want to be fit and to heat healthfully. However, they tend to not purge or use laxatives to control their weight. They begin by wanting to be healthy.

For some males the definition of health may have to do with being athletic and competitive, as in the hypothetical case cited above. In that case, the young man constantly had to adjust his weight in order to meet the requirements of his coaches. For the football team he had to put on a lot off bulk and size so that he could compete. However, for the track team he had to lose weight because speed is more important than massive muscle. Ultimately, the constant and radical shifts in weight led to his eating disorder. The interesting thing is that this young man was not aware that he had an eating problem until his father, who was quite alarmed, brought to his attention that he was looking too skinny. When his father brought him to the family physician a weigh-in was done and it was confirmed that he was anorexic and needed to gain a lot of weight.

Other male teenagers among the ten percent of the population that develops eating disorders, there is a deliberate attempt to lose weight. Males, along with females are affected by pressure brought by the media to be thin. In the case of males this pressure is due to steady (and correct) information about the medical risks of obesity such as high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and diabetes. Once these young men begin restricting their intake of food in an effort to avoid obesity and remain healthy they become obsessed with weight loss and develop full blown anorexia.

The Stanford University study points to the worrisome problem that male anorexia is often overlooked because the condition is most commonly associated with young females. It is really important that families, friends and the medical establishment pay attention to sudden weight loss in boys and examine the possibility that they may be suffering anorexia nervosa.

Your comments are always welcome and encouraged.

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