Walk into any gym, and you’ll encounter a spectrum of men determined to work toward, reach, and supersede their fitness goals. Ask them, and they’ll often happily share with you how far they’ve come and the triumphs they’ve reached on their journey. Their bodies may even begin to feel like a powerful tool to communicate their determination and perseverance. But behind the heavy lifting and supercharged stamina lies a growing concern: eating disorders.
Among men, despite a rising worry, eating disorders often go unnoticed. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 10 million males suffer from eating disorders at one point or another, with a majority not receiving help to recover due to the cultural stigmas that surround this conversation. Additionally, the NEDA finds that the risk of mortality for males with eating disorders is higher than it is for females. These stigmas are a weapon used to avert support, and it’s time to turbocharge the fight against it, as this issue was largely exacerbated by the pandemic: A study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that eating disorder inpatient admissions doubled from spring 2020 to spring 2021.
Aaron Flores, a registered dietitian nutritionist and host of the “Men Unscripted” podcast, believes the reality may be even darker than what those numbers suggest. “There are probably a lot more men struggling with eating disorders than the research even suggests,” he says. “What that means is a lot of folks are struggling without a diagnosis, not knowing it’s an eating disorder in many cases.”
“There are probably a lot more men struggling with eating disorders than the research even suggests.”—Aaron Flores
As we unpack the notion that “boys will be boys,” we begin to see the interlocked ways this toxic mantra has spread through the minds of men. Concerns over body image are deemed “feminine” or “gay” as men are subconsciously told to internalize any feelings of discomfort or unhappiness with self. It can often begin to feel like there are two options: Persevere silently through the pain and endure a rigorous fitness routine to hopefully resolve the “issue,” or become the guy whose body is viewed as a joke, shamed for the very qualities that pain it—whether that be because of a larger size, lankier frame, or another body type that’s unglamorous in the mass media.
“This idea that having an eating disorder challenges masculinity is part of the stigma,” Flores says. “The other stigma that shows up is the fear of being in a larger body, the fear of gaining weight, and the fear of how you will be treated, bullied, excluded if you are in a larger body plays across all eating disorders.”
A 2021 study entitled “Exercise Addiction and Muscle Dysmorphia: The Role of Emotional Dependence and Attachment” found that men ranked higher than women when it came to topics including exercise addition, exercise dependence, and muscle dissatisfaction. Additionally, the problem doesn’t just impact those who want to lose weight: the NEDA finds that “25% of normal weight males perceive themselves to be underweight and 90% of teenage boys exercise with the goal of bulking up.”
Flores explains, “They can look restrictive, and they can look like binging and purging. And the other one that a lot of men struggle with that’s a little different is Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID),” Flores says. According to the NEDA, ARFID “is similar to anorexia in that both disorders involve limitations in the amount and/or types of food consumed, but unlike anorexia, ARFID does not involve any distress about body shape or size, or fears of fatness.”
There’s no denying how prevalent and pressing this issue is, making prevention and intervention all the more important. If you struggle with an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, or negative self-image, here is a simplified healing journey you can start on.
Find a supportive network
First, find someone to confide in. We know men often don’t talk about their emotions or troubles as much as they need to, leading to uncontrolled and internalized worry. Though it may be a hard barrier to break, it’s a vital one in taking a step forward towards healing. Whether it’s your partner, close friend, or someone else you trust, slightly push yourself to speak more honestly about the ways you’re feeling, without the need to belittle your emotions with humor or shame. “Whether it’s a friend, parent partner, doctor, therapist—being able to say, ‘I think this is a problem and I need support,’ is [a huge thing],” Flores says.
Look ahead and become conscious
Secondly, make a plan. Perhaps you’re aware of the actions that are triggering you or leading you down a bad path, and feel like you can steer clear of them on your own. Or perhaps you want to make a game plan on how you can lose weight or bulk up in a healthy manner. Whatever your goal is—whether recovering or sticking to a regimen that does not lead to a toxic destination—be clear with yourself on what that is, and have compassion for where you are. “Eating disorders show up for a reason,” Flores says. “They are tools that help people get through something very hard, and at some point they no longer serve a purpose. So have some compassion for yourself [to recognize] that this isn’t your fault.”
Lastly, get the help and support you need. For some, that may mean seeking eating disorder treatment or guidance. There’s no shame in doing so. For others, it may mean meeting with a nutritionist to ensure your health journey is off to a safe start. Only you can make the call on if and when you need help, but never be embarrassed in doing so.
As a society, there myriad changes to make in order to better identify and diagnose eating disorders in men. Flores suggests that high school and college sports coaches—and even those who work with younger children—be trained in how to screen for disordered eating behaviors as these battles often begin early on in life.
“[Making more spaces] for men to share their experiences will be very helpful, and the more we can examine how masculinity is shaping this experience will help us challenge our own biases,” Flores says.