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Men 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

Fictionalized Case:

He seemed to be a perfect young man, a scholar athlete described by the ancient Greeks as something to aspire to. He graduated from undergraduate school and graduate studies in business with straight “A’s,” a perfect 4.0 grade point average. In addition, he was a star football and basketball player whose achievements won the admiration of everyone on campus. He crowned his achievements by landing a top notch job with one of the major corporations in America. Yet, there was something wrong with this ideal picture. You see, this bright and successful young man was suffering from Anorexia Nervosa. It wasn’t until his weight reached a critical low so that family, friends and employers finally noticed that something was wrong. After he was referred to a physician was it discovered that he was suffering from Anorexia. How could this happen?

A national study conducted by Harvard University revealed the fact that 25% of those with Anorexia are men and the numbers are growing. Clinicians of all types tend to overlook this diagnosis for the simple reason that it’s commonly associated with women.

There are several factors that complicate the issue having to do specifically with men:

1. Friends and family of males dismiss the possibility of an eating disorder because they, too, connect it with women and not men.

2. Most people tend to view young men as people who are muscular, athletic and thin.

3. Men themselves do not think of themselves as having Anorexia because they see it as a female problem.

4. Exercise is not thought of as compulsive with regard to males. Even in the face of endless amounts of time exercising, no one seems to realize that too much time is spent on that activity. After all, men go to the gym. Who is going to view that as abnormal?

5. Unfortunately, men are less likely to discuss personal problems with other people than is true for women. Male ego seems to get in the way of even admitting to having problems much less discuss them. Men are notorious for not wanting to deal with feelings.

6. Denial is a powerful symptom of Anorexia. Even parents do not see or intellectually register that something is wrong when they look at their sons and daughters. This further exacerbates the role that gender plays in this eating disorder.

Multiple studies show that expectation plays a critical role in how we view things. The old riddle about “where the survivors of a plane crash buried” continues to stump unsuspecting people because everyone knows that plane crashes result in death and it’s expected that there will be funeral services. The word “survivors” goes unseen because it is not expected. The same riddle applies to men and Anorexia.

We need a change in mindset. We need change in the way we think about eating disorders so that we are able to suspect and expect that men can and do suffer from this set of life threatening disorder.

By the way, according to the same Harvard study, of all those found to suffer from binge eating disorder, 40% are male.

If you know someone who is suffering from an eating disorder, talk to them and encourage them to see their physician. In fact, you can even inform their family if they refuse your help; just let them know your intentions ahead of time.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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