Eating Disorders Are Not Just a Women's Issue

Eating disorders in men may be overlooked because they are usually seen as being a female problem

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Eating disorders are common among teenagers and young adults. However, these conditions are usually assumed to affect only women, making the issue even more critical for men.

A recent study found that men with eating disorders were under-diagnosed and under-treated.

The researchers concluded that these findings are due to a lack of research on men and eating disorders and the continuing perception that eating disorders are a "women's problem."

"Tell a doctor if you are experiencing body image issues."

The lead author of this study was Ulla Räisänen from the HERG Health Experiences Research Group in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

The study included 10 young men (out of 39 total interviewees) with an eating disorder. These men were aged 16 to 25 years old and were from the United Kingdom.

The researchers interviewed the men about four different themes:

  • recognizing early signs and symptoms
  • recognizing the problem
  • getting help
  • initial contact with health care and support services

The findings showed that the men had all shown behaviors such as going days without eating, throwing up and obsessive calorie counting, exercising and checking their weight.

Self-harming and social isolation were reported by a few of the men as well.

The researchers found that the main reason the men were not able to recognize that they had a problem was due to the perception that eating disorders only affect younger teenage girls.

None of the men had previously known what the symptoms of eating disorders even were, making it very hard for them to understand they had a problem in the first place.

Because the men themselves took so long to understand what was going on, it took their friends, families and teachers even longer to realize the full situation.

The men told the researchers that their symptoms and behaviors were often waved off as personal choices rather than signs of a serious illness.

The findings also revealed that most of the men and their friends, families and teachers realized that there was a critical problem when they had to go to the emergency room or had a crisis.

The men said that another reason they didn't seek help earlier was that they didn't know where to find support because they were afraid that doctors or other healthcare professionals would not believe them or take them seriously.

The researchers discovered that the men had different experiences with healthcare support, reporting instances of having to wait an especially long time for a referral to an eating disorder specialist, being misdiagnosed for something else and being told to "man up."

Overall, the men's main complaint was that there is a huge lack of information about eating disorders in men.

Previous research has suggested that people perceive eating disorders as problems that only happen to young women; Räisänen and team found that this view is commonplace among the medical and research world too.

"Our findings suggest that men may experience particular problems in recognizing that they may have an eating disorder as a result of the continuing cultural construction of eating disorders as uniquely or predominantly a female problem," concluded Räisänen and co-author Kate Hunt.

Ultimately, the researchers maintained that early detection of eating disorders is of the utmost importance.

These researchers believe that the health care world needs to keep raising awareness about male eating disorders so that the experiences and management of eating disorders are not inherently coupled with being feminine.

"Unfortunately, the world of psychology, mental health, and the medical profession is not immune to our own theoretical constructs, such as Social Learning Theory as discussed by Albert Bandura," said Daniel Berarducci, MA, a Clinical Professional Counselor at Person-Holistic Innovations in Las Vegas, Nevada.

"What this research has been able to discuss is that, at times, even our own profession will place social stigmas about what is a 'female' disorder as compared to a 'male' disorder.  However, as professionals, we have to understand that each person can experience concerns within the wide range of clinical symptomology and assist in any way possible," he said.

"When we are able to keep a clear and open mind to best assist the individual, then we are fulfilling our professional responsibilities to provide quality care for that individual," Berarducci said.

This study was limited because these findings may not apply to older men with eating disorders.

This study was published on April 8 in BMJ Open.

A grant on the behalf of Comic Relief provided funding.

Review Date: 
April 8, 2014
Last Updated:
April 11, 2014