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Eating disorders are more common in men than you might think

Eating disorders are more common in men than you might think - here's how to spot the signs in yourself or your friends

OK. It's the closing years of the decade (bet that snuck up on you) and we're all thoroughly modern in our sexual politics. And yet, a lot of you will picture only women if I say 'anorexic' or 'bulimia survivor'. We can know intellectually that something like a quarter of those living with major eating disorders are male, but it doesn't really penetrate down into the way we look after our friends - male and female - unless we remind ourselves from time to time. 

To make it worse, eating disorders can be much harder to spot among men because they can feel like it's not a 'manly' thing to suffer from. And being ashamed of needing help does not make it easy to reach out for it. So, it will do us all some good to know more about one of the main underlying causes of common eating disorders, how it can affect men and boys, and what the warning signs are for eating disorders in men. 

The root of so many eating disorders - body dissatisfaction

If you think about it for a moment, you won't be surprised to learn that men today report nearly as much body dissatisfaction as women, and the rates are still growing. Ironically, the fitter or more active the man, the more they are likely to be holding themselves up to an unachievable standard. 

Think of your boxer friend. The big beefy bloke whose shoulders you might envy. He could easily be pushing himself towards, and punishing himself for not achieving, the next weight class down. Think of a runner or cyclist you might know. The one who's willing to be seen in public in spandex. He probably isn't as happy about how he looks in it as you might think. 

The fact is that no matter who these guys look up to, who their role models are, there is at least one large industry that has discovered that people who are unhappy with their body spend more in the shop. There are a wide range of risk factors for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, but two of the largest - psychological factors and cultural influence - are coming for the boys just as much as they always have for the girls. 

What to look out for 

  • A sudden or increased preoccupation with training, muscle toning or body building 
  • Training even when ill or injured 
  • Stress, anxiety or worry over missing a workout
  • Sudden or rapid weight loss 
  • Severe changes in diet, skipped meals, etc.
  • Lowered stamina or inability to engage in exercise that was once common 

What to do 

This can be tricky. You'll rarely go wrong if you start by talking to them. This might be an uncomfortable subject, though. Some men simply don't like to talk about these things, and can be expected to deny any kind of vulnerability. If it gets tricky - and it probably will - there are a lot of resources online. The NHS is, unsurprisingly, a good place to start. Or visit Beat here for lots more information.

Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 13-19 May 2019. The theme this year is Body Image – how we think and feel about our bodies.