Do eating disorders affect only girls?

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Donna Feldman
Nutrition & Dietetics

While the popular image of a person with an eating disorder is a teenage girl, boys certainly can develop eating disorders.  In fact, recent evidence shows that the incidence of eating disorders in boys and young men is rising.

The causes of eating disorders in males aren’t that different from females.  Boys with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression or other emotional issues may be more susceptible.  Genes may play a role in these problems, but not everyone ends up with an eating disorder.  The person’s environment is what facilitates the behaviors. 

For boys and young men, certain activities are highly associated with eating disorders.  Wrestling is the classic example.  Inappropriate weight loss methods used to lose weight before a competition, such as fasting, can push a susceptible boy over the edge into an eating disorder.   Other body- and appearance-conscious activities and sports are increasingly linked to eating disorders in young men:

  • Theater
  • Dance
  • Body building
  • Fashion
  • Long distance running
  • Competitive cycling

In fact, one former competitive cyclist recently described enforced anorexia as a training method encouraged by teams, to reduce body weight. 

Even some sports not associated with low body weight can put boys on a path to an eating disorder.  In any team sport, when teammates or coaches hint that someone weighs too much, or share tips on muscle building regimens or supplements, susceptible boys can end up with a problem. 

While eating disorders in boys are less common than in girls, parents should pay attention to any marked change in their sons’ weight or food choices.  Some warning signs could be:

  • A weight loss diet that never stops, even when weight becomes normal.
  • Increasingly picky food choices, with growing lists of “bad” foods and food intolerances.
  • Hiding the weight loss under baggy clothes.
  • Constant weighing and talk about body weight and calories
  • Binge eating is another eating disorder seen in boys.  Obesity is the inevitable outcome.  
Parents who suspect their son has an eating disorder should first consult with their pediatrician.  Boys can certainly benefit from appropriate treatment.
Vicki Berkus, MD
Psychiatry

No, definitely not. There is more and more pressure for guys to have the "inverted Y " shape with the broad shoulders and narrow waist. The men’s magazines are just as dangerous as the women's telling guys how they should look. Men have a 0.3% lifetime prevalence of eating disorders. The pressure for wrestlers, jockeys, runners and other athletes to keep weight at a certain level is huge. I have provided information to football teams because it is not unusual for the players to gain 50-80lbs during off-season. This is not only dangerous to their health but to their ability to perform. It is now more acceptable for men to be honest about their struggles and to get help.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.