Contrary to popular opinion, eating disorders are not just a problem for teenage girls. Eating disorders are not limited to a particular gender or age. Boys, girls, men, and women can all be prone to eating disorders. Adults of all ages can develop eating disorders, and between 1999 and 2006, the number of hospitalizations for eating disorders grew by 119% for children under the age of 12. (American Academy of Pediatrics)
Eating disorders are serious diseases that include physical, emotional, and psychological components. People with eating disorders tend to have a distorted image of their own bodies – most often they believe they are too heavy and desperately need to lose weight. There are several types of eating disorders with very different characteristics.
• Anorexia Nervosa (AN) – Anorexics are severely underweight. They try to control their weight by rigid calorie control and not eating. This can cause malnutrition which can damage organs including the heart, and can lead to loss of muscle tissue, and make bones weak and easy to fracture. AN can be deadly as anorexics can literally starve themselves to death.
• Bulimia Nervosa (BN) – Bulimics are often at a normal weight or slightly overweight. They want to control their weight but often eat what they consider to be too much. This leads to purging which can include using laxatives to rush food through the digestive tract, vomiting, excessive exercising, or fasting. Bulimics can destroy their teeth by bringing up stomach acid when they vomit, and can damage the lining of the stomach and esophagus. BN can also lead to pneumonia if purged food gets into the airway due to vomiting.
• Binge Eating Disorder (BED) – Bingers often eat large quantities of food (binge) without balancing the extra calories by purging. They tend to be overweight and fail to lose weight despite repeated dieting.
Eating disorders often arise due to unrealistic beliefs about body image and personal size. A person with an eating disorder may see himself as fat when in fact he is overly thin. Some occupations and sports such as horse racing, modeling, dancing, and distance running require careful weight control that can become obsessive or turn into an eating disorder.
Medical science has traditionally focused on eating disorders in girls and women, in part because the majority of reported cases are found in females. Culturally, men have fewer outlets to discuss eating disorders or to look for help. This is in part because the disease is considered to be feminine. While women are expected to be model thin and to watch what they eat, the male standard calls for strong bodies and muscle definition. Weight control or weight loss are not considered “manly” topics.
This difference in standards for men and women can actually lead to another eating disorder sometimes known as muscular dysmorphia or bigorexia. In this disease, which is more common in men than in women, a man perceives his body as being too small or underdeveloped even though he may actually have good muscle definition. This disease can lead a man to spend many hours a day exercising to try to build more muscle.
All eating disorders are serious conditions that can have harmful and even deadly consequences. Health care providers may tend toward gender-blindness when it comes to recognizing eating disorders and may be less likely to correctly diagnose or treat the condition in males than in females.