The prevalence of eating disorders among men appears to be increasing. Data indicates that the incidence of extreme dieting, purging and bingeing more than doubled among Australian men between 1995 and 2005. Further, some experts are predicting that more than one million Australians will develop an eating disorder in the next few years.
It is important to note that eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice and not a means to gain attention. Eating disorders can interfere greatly with one’s day-to-day life. Furthermore, the risk of premature death is increased in those with an eating disorder. This risk is amplified as a result of medical complications associated with the disorder; however, suicide has been linked as a major cause of death in those with an eating disorder.
The risk factors for both men and women appear to be the same. These include low self esteem, perfectionism, bullying, including weight and body-related teasing. Moreover, the social pressures to attain an ideal body shape and size as a marker of personal success are extremely high. Many men may resort to disordered eating and excessive exercise regimes to achieve the ‘perfect’ body shape and size. Warning signs can include a fixation on weight, body shape, muscle growth and imperfections. Other and more obvious signs may include anabolic steroid use, excessive exercise often at the expense of other activities and a strict eating routine.
Of all the eating disorders, men are more likely to experience binge eating disorder. This disorder is characterised by frequently consuming excessive amounts of food, often in the absence of hunger. Food bingeing often masks a deeper problem. Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, disgust and depression usually stem from an episode. A person suffering from binge eating disorder may resort to fasting and restrictive diets to counteract the negative feelings that often follow a binge.
'Thinspo' and 'fitspo' tagged images on social media are also likely distort a man’s perception of what is ‘ideal’. These photos may foster an obsession with diet, weight and exercise. It is often assumed only teenage girls succumb to these types of pressures. But men can also fall victim to this type of graphic imagery. Men, more than ever, are being bombarded with social pressures and messages that health perfection leads to superiority and a more successful life.
A frightening new phenomenon that has emerged in the male population in recent years is the unhealthy obsession with so-called ‘healthy eating’. This manifests as orthorexia nervosa, Greek for “good appetite”. Body builders and excessive gym goers are particularly prone to this concerning development, which is especially prevalent among young men. Orthorexia nervosa may manifest as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but may soon snowball into a fixation on food quality and purity. Feelings of anxiety and vulnerability may exacerbate this obsession. The preoccupation with healthy eating may take up a disproportionate amount of time and attention and may lead to feelings of guilt and self-loathing if the individual deviates from the diet. This is very different to someone who eats healthily most of the time, but is still able to enjoy indulgences from time-to-time without such negative feelings.
While eating disorders can be debilitating for the sufferer, it is encouraging that recovery is achievable. Early intervention is crucial and increases the likelihood of a successful recovery. Recognising the warning signs holds the key to early diagnosis and rehabilitation.
It is paramount that health professionals like myself improve our skills in this domain. Doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and dietitians must learn to not only recognise the danger signs, but also to implement strategies as early as possible in order to give the patient the best possible chance of successfully overcoming the disorder. Best practice recognises the need for a multidisciplinary team of health professionals to support someone with an eating disorder.
Government support services also play a vital role in supporting the growing numbers of sufferers. While Federal Government funding in the area of mental health has increased, it’s clear that more needs to be done.
Finally, promotions such as the ABC’s ‘Naked As’ week can go a long way towards reducing the stigma and increasing awareness about eating disorders. This can only benefit those who are most vulnerable and in need of help.