When thinking about eating disorders, the automatic image that society has impressioned into one’s mind is that of a skinny female. Not often do we picture the male population suffering from this mental illness. However, according to Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, the number of males suffering from eating disorders is on the rise.

According to WebMD, eating disorders are considered a serious mental and physical illness as well as a psychiatric condition that often comes in the forms of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. However, male eating disorders often look different to those of females. Men more commonly experience eating disorders in the form of excessive exercise, binge eating and fasting. This is in contrast to its manifestation in females, where the most common types of eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. Despite many men experiencing eating disorders, it must be noted that men are still underrepresented, underdiagnosed and undertreated when it comes to this illness. According to a journal article titled Eating Disorders in Men: underdiagnosed, undertreated and misunderstood, resources for male eating disorders are lacking as, until recently, research and treatment paradigms were geared towards and only focused on females with such a disorder. This has also led to risk assessments and eating disorder treatment plans which reinforce the gender stereotypes associated with the illness. This often results in male eating disorders going unnoticed.

It is commonly known that many men turn to eating disorders due to muscle and body dysmorphia. This is a mental state that results in the body being seen differently by the person than how it actually appears. According to the journal article Eating Disorders in Men: underdiagnosed, undertreated and misunderstood, this dysmorphia disproportionally affects gay, bisexual and asexual men. This disproportionate effect is said to be linked to the high levels of concern around body image within the queer community which places members of it at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.

In addition to this, a commonly experienced male eating disorder is one that is often linked to, and influenced by, athletic achievement. Many men want to gain or lose weight to be able to achieve optimal performance within their sport or hobby or even to be eligible to compete in it. Such an achievement is often achieved through excessive exercise, usually while in a calorie deficit, with the result of placing men’s health in a detrimental space. The use of excessive exercise to lose weight is sometimes referred to as anorexia athleticism and is often used as a compensatory behaviour for caloric intake according to Eating Disorders in Men: underdiagnosed, undertreated and misunderstood. This often starts off as men exercising for weight loss or muscle gain in order to achieve better health. However, this usually results in a runaway diet which further leads to self-starvation and, ultimately, anorexia nervosa. This kind of eating disorder often results in other aspects of the person’s life being affected, such as work, social activities or just meeting day-to-day responsibilities.

The pressure placed on men by the media and society as a whole to look a certain way has resulted in many men developing eating disorders to keep up with the unrealistic expectations. Here are five guideline questions taken from Men’s Journal to ask yourself to help determine if you need to seek help: are you drastically decreasing your calorie intake?; are you increasing how frequently or for how long you exercise?; are you obsessed by thoughts of food or your body?; is exercise interfering with your work and social life?; and do you feel any physical symptoms such as feeling weak, rundown or dizzy?

According to NEDA, eating disorders have the highest rate of mortality of all mental illnesses, with the male population having an even higher risk of death than the female population. However, according to WebMD, a study found that men who seek treatment for their eating disorders usually have positive outcomes. Despite this, information, research and treatment surrounding male eating disorders is still nowhere near the same level as that for female eating disorders. It is said that, in order to achieve full awareness, effective diagnosis and treatment for males going through eating disorders, the illness needs to be seen as more of a human issue and less of a gender issue.

If you or anyone you know might be suffering from an eating disorder, please seek help and/or reach out to the UP Student Counselling Unit (SCU) at studentcounselling@up.ac.za or at 0800 747 747 or send an SMS to 31393 and they will call you back.

Photo: Cletus Mulaudi

Features journalist | view posts

Hi I'm Lauren, I'm passionate about writing and run a personal blog called Life on my Wall (@lifeonmywall). I enjoy writing about student issues and minority group experiences.