Unveiling the truth about eating disorders in men


Bulimia, anorexia and binge eating, commonly associated as serious health problems for women are surprisingly showing up in large numbers of men and young boys in Canada. Eating disorders are serious, life threatening illnesses that arise from a variety of biological, psychological and social factors. According to Dr. Blake Woodside, director of the program for eating disorders at Toronto General Hospital, one in three cases of anorexia involve a male. Another article suggests that in 2012 alone, one-third of Canadian men reportedly engaged in unhealthy eating habits such as fasting, vomiting, taking laxatives, skipping meals, or smoking to control their appetite. 

Risk factors

Research indicates that men develop eating disorders for the same reasons that their female counterparts do. Dr. Woodside suggests that the stigma and isolation experienced by those suffering from what is commonly perceived as a “girl’s problem” can make men reluctant to come forward resulting in many arriving in treatment programs much sicker than females.

Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors towards weight and food. These factors are often driven by social and cultural pressures.

Socio-cultural pressures to be thin, or alternatively – muscular, are strongly linked to the development of eating disorders. The media is a major source of reinforcing cultural ideals of physical attractiveness as well as portraying masculine and feminine characteristics. Women tend to be presented in the media as thin, weak, and vulnerable, while men are muscular, strong, and powerful. These characteristics can generate body image issues, unhealthy eating behaviours and an overvaluation of appearance in men.

Life altering events such as a sexual identity crisis, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, a death of a family member or friend, or an accident can also trigger the onset of an eating disorder in men.

Weight and shape

According to the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders (NAMED), men are as dissatisfied with their body weight as women, but in different ways. The NAMED says that men are more concerned about their “shape” than their “weight” with 40 per cent of men wanting to increase weight, and an equal number wanting to decrease weight.

In addition, the male obsession with body image can lead to obsessive exercise. Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) or Reverse Anorexia Nervosa is a condition characterized by an individual who strives to be bigger, bulkier or more muscular. This disorder is almost exclusively present in males. Males tend to be more concerned with how specific body parts look than females, such as obsessing over how certain muscle groups look on their body.

Men and women affected

Eating disorders affect all ages and genders. Whether experienced by men or women, eating disorders are serious health conditions that require comprehensive treatment. Comprehensive treatment is most effective if started in the early stages of the disorder. Treatment can include monitoring physical symptoms, behavioral, cognitive and body image therapy, nutritional counselling education and medication – if necessary.

Ten Surprising Facts about Eating Disorders

  • Eating disorders carry with them a high risk of other mental and physical illnesses that can lead to death.
  • Eighty-five per cent of Canadian women and 40 per cent of adolescent boys are dissatisfied with their bodies.
  • Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness – it is estimated that 10 per cent of individuals with anorexia will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.
  • The number of males experiencing an eating disorder is increasing. In adults 10 per cent of eating disorders occur in men, while for adolescents 20 per cent of eating disorders are in boys.
  • Reverse anorexia, characterized by a fear of being too small and weak, may occur in some male athletes such as body builders and wrestlers. This may occur even if the individual is large and muscular. It may also be associated with anabolic steroid use in adolescent males.
  • Eighty to 90 per cent of eating disorders begin with a diet.
  • There are 5 times as many people with bulimia as with anorexia.
  • Ninety-five per cent of people who diet will eventually gain back the lost weight.
  • Successful weight management comes through lifestyle changes regarding food, exercise and stress management.
  • Studies suggest that many males may be seeking medical help for the side effects of an eating disorder but not for the disorder itself.

Reduce stigma and seek support

The important thing to remember is that unusual weight loss, excessive exercise behaviors or evidence of unhealthy eating patterns including bingeing and purging should not be ignored.

Males are not exempt from this health condition. Reducing the stigma attached to this disease and unveiling the truth is a one step towards helping those suffering in silence.

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