Not for Women Only

Men, too, can fall victim to eating disorders

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HealthDay Reporter

SATURDAY, June 15, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Every day about one million men either starve themselves or binge-eat before sticking their fingers down their throat to force themselves to throw up.

They all suffer from anorexia or bulimia nervosa, the same eating disorders that plague seven million American women.

But because the syndromes are generally associated with weight-obsessed teen-age girls, many men deny they have a problem, or they are too embarrassed to get help. Those who do seek therapy are turned off by the predominantly female make-up of support groups, which are a big part of eating-disorder treatment programs.

"It's about machismo," says Chris Athas, vice-president of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). "Many men are reluctant to come forward, and when they do they are simply ashamed to have an illness of this type."

Unlike women who are swayed by images of stick-thin magazine models and thus diet fanatically, many men who develop anorexia are fighting demons from their past.

It's likely they were once overweight and taunted by their peers, says Athas. Often this occurred around puberty -- an age when self-consciousness is at its peak. So with words like "fatso" and "porky" resounding in their memories, they adopt self-destructive behaviors.

Athletes also face an increased risk of anorexia, says Laurie Mintz, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Some mistakenly believe their performance will improve if they eat scantily and exercise furiously.

"People who compete in an aesthetic or weight-dependent sport like gymnastics, running, rowing or dancing are more vulnerable," she adds.

Another group with an increased proclivity for anorexia is the gay population.

"The vast majority of research points to male homosexuality as a risk factor," says Mintz. "There is more pressure to be thin, and there is more focus on appearance in the homosexual community than in the heterosexual community."

According to ANAD, about 86 percent of both men and women say their eating disorders began during their teen-age years. However, only 50 percent of them report being cured.

"There's an enormous need to train health-care providers to recognize eating disorders in men," says Athas. Clinicians, laboring under the same misconception that anorexia is a women's disease, often miss the cues in their male patients, he adds.

Eating disorders can plague people throughout their lives. Once the disorder is entrenched, thin is never seen as thin enough. Someone who is anorexic may be emaciated and still see himself as fat.

The sooner that distorted perception is therapeutically challenged, the better. Early detection and treatment up the odds for a full recovery, experts say.

ANAD offers these lists of warning signs:

For anorexia nervosa:

  • Abnormal weight loss.
  • Fear of gaining weight.
  • Refusal to eat, except for tiny portions.
  • Distorted body image.
  • Constant dieting.
  • Compulsive exercise.
  • Hair loss.

For bulimia nervosa:

  • Preoccupation with food, weight and body.
  • Binge eating, usually in secret.
  • Vomiting after bingeing.
  • Abuse of laxatives, diuretics, diet pills or drugs to induce vomiting.
  • Compulsive exercise.
  • Broken blood vessels in the eyes.

What To Do

To learn more about men and eating disorders, visit Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, Inc., or read this article from the Psychiatric Times. Also, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders has plenty of useful information.

SOURCES: Chris Athas, vice-president, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Highland Park Ill.; Laurie Mintz, associate professor of psychology, University of Missouri, Columbia

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