Eating Disorders On The Rise In Men

Monday, March 14, 2016

Eating Disorders On The Rise In Men 

by Helen Gill ( Freelance writer)

When asked to think of someone with an eating disorder, most people would picture an anxiety-ridden teenage girl. And it’s certainly true that the majority of eating disorder patients are young females [1]. However, the issue is not limited to this demographic - and it seems to be widening its scope. In particular, the number of men affected by eating disorders has shot up in recent years. Indeed, a study by University College London back in 2013 established that eating disorders were rising twice as fast among men than they were among women [2]. Eating disorders are obviously a very worrying phenomenon wherever they crop up, so this trend is undeniably a cause for concern.

Eating Disorders In Men

Eating disorders in men are as varied and hard to combat in men as in women. For men, however, they may often go untreated for longer, resulting in the development of some extremely nasty health problems [3]. Due to various societal issues, including conventions of masculinity, men often do not feel able to disclose problems they may be having, and are less likely to seek treatment - particularly for mental health issues [4]. The fact that people tend to associate eating disorders with women and are therefore not ‘tuned in’ to the symptoms in men does not help. Sadly, this means that eating disorders may go unnoticed in men until it is too late. Eating disorders are often hard to spot and treat anyway, as sufferers will to go great lengths to conceal and preserve their aberrant food-related behaviours. This added layer of obfuscation in the case of male sufferers does not help.

Are Male Eating Disorders Different?

There are few specific differences in the clinical presentation of eating disorders in men when compared to women. Men with eating disorders are, it has been noted, likely to suffer from more comorbid conditions (such as depression, social anxiety etc) than their female counterparts [5]. However, there are certain varieties of disorder which tend to disproportionately affect men. Largely this appears to be due to the differing standards of physique expected of men and of women. Men, for example, are more likely than is typical to develop ‘exercise bulimia’ - a variety of calorie control in which calories are ‘purged’ through excessive exercise. Then there’s ‘Bigorexia’ - more technically known as ‘Muscle Dysmorphia’ [6]. This is a form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder in which men (and some women) develop the idea that they are small, puny, and weedy-looking. They thus spend unhealthy amounts of time in the gym, become obsessive about the kind of ‘muscle-building’ foods they eat, and may even turn to dangerous substances like steroids in their anxiety. Although not perhaps an ‘eating disorder’ per se, the psychological mechanisms at work within the mind of a Bigorexia sufferer and of an Anorexia sufferer resemble each other very strongly.

Why Is This Happening?

Nobody can say for certain quite why male eating disorders are rising so alarmingly. It has been noted, however, that there is much more pressure on men than there used to be to look a certain way. The media is increasingly subjecting men to the same kind of perfected and unrealistic male portrayals that they’ve been flinging at women for generations  [7] - and it’s having an impact. Turns out that men are not the stoic, non-vain, non-frivolous beings that the Victorians thought they were. When subjected to the same body-image pressures as women, they too crack under the strain. This is a deeply sad state of affairs, and it is to be hoped that something can be done about it in the near future. In the meantime, however, don’t assume that eating disorders cannot happen to men. They can, and, increasingly, they do.

[1] Jane Kirby, “Who Is Likely To Develop An Eating Disorder?”, For Dummies

[2] Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, “Male eating disorders on the rise”, May 2013

[3], “Medical Issues from Anorexia, Bulimia and Other Eating Disorders”

[4] Luke Sullivan, “Men’s Health Week: facing up to male mental health problems”, The Guardian, Jun 2013

[5] Tetyana, “Eating Disorders: Do Men And Women Differ?”, Science Of Eating Disorders, Jul 2012

[6] Samuel Osborne, “Bigorexia: What is muscle dysmorphia and how many people does it affect?”, The Independent, Sept 2015

[7] James S Fell, “How The Media Makes Men Hate Their Bodies Too”, Time, Aug 2014


Eating Disorder Association NI
28 Bedford Street,
Belfast, BT2 7FE
Phone: 028 9023 5959