Disordered eating or obsessions about body shape, size or weight can dominate a person’s thoughts and behaviors and disrupt their normal and healthy functioning. While eating disorders are typically understood as a problem primarily in women, the prevalence of eating disorders in men is on the rise.

Disordered eating can be influenced by a range of factors, especially increasing societal pressure on body expectations. While these issues have traditionally only been discussed with regard to women, there has been increasing pressure and societal expectations placed on men’s bodies as well. As a result, the rates of eating disorders in men and related restrictive or obsessive behaviors have increased. Male eating disorders may have different symptoms and presentations than female eating disorders, and it’s important to discuss and recognize the signs.

Men and Body Image

Low self-esteem and poor body image can be both a cause and result of disordered eating. Increasing pressure and media representation of certain body types, most commonly highly muscular bodies, can contribute to body image issues in men. Low self-esteem can be a result of real or perceived differences in body shape or weight from a considered ideal.

These feelings of body dissatisfaction in men may relate to both body fat and muscularity and can contribute to maladaptive behaviors used to modify body shape or size. Low self-esteem can be a motivating factor for unhealthy dieting behaviors that have long-term physical and mental health consequences.

Prevalence of Eating Disorders In Males

The percentage of men who will experience anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder in their lifetime is just under 3%. Although eating disorders are more common overall among women, certain eating disorder subtypes are more common in men.

For example, the prevalence of binge eating disorder is nearly equal among men and women. However, rates of binge eating symptoms that do not meet full criteria for diagnosis are estimated to be three times higher in men than women. Eating disorder statistics also suggest that rates are higher in some groups, such as bodybuilders, dancers and gay men. Eating disorders tend to emerge later in life for males than they do for females, and the percentage of men with eating disorders is higher during adulthood than adolescence.

Most Common Eating Disorders Among Men

Diagnosis of eating disorders in males has been difficult, as research and diagnostic criteria have often been directed toward women. As a result, eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) — disordered eating that doesn’t fit within typical diagnostic classifications — is the most frequently diagnosed eating disorder in men.

Other disorders that men may develop include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, compulsive exercise and diet pill abuse

  • Anorexia. Anorexia nervosa is less common in men than in women, with approximately 0.5% of men presenting with anorexia.
  • Bulimia. Bulimia nervosa is the least common eating disorder in men, although it may have some overlap with binge eating disorder.
  • Binge Eating. Binge eating disorder is the most prevalent eating disorder in men and is more frequently reported in men than women. It is estimated that 2.0% of males will experience binge eating in their lifetime.
  • Compulsive Exercise. Compulsive exercise is likely to be a symptom of an eating disorder. Compulsive exercise can be predictive of the severity of an eating disorder, and it is one of the most persistent symptoms.
  • Diet Pill Abuse. Diet pill abuse is considered an extreme weight control strategy in disordered eating and is less common in men than women. People with eating disorders may abuse diet pills, or other substances such as stimulants, to induce weight loss.

Causes of Eating Disorders in Men

The main causes of eating disorders in men are the same as those in women and include genetic factors, life experiences and social and cultural pressures. In men, eating disorders are more likely to be driven by muscle dysmorphia, where disordered behavior is driven by feeling too small or not muscular enough.

Awareness and Stigma

Eating disorders are often considered a female disorder; therefore, eating disorders in men have been less studied. Because of this, there may be a lack of awareness of symptoms of disordered eating in men. There may also be a stigma regarding eating disorders in men, and the notion of eating disorders as a primarily feminine problem may prevent men from seeking treatment.

Treatment Options for Men

Men with eating disorders often seek care late in their illness, and eating disorders may co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as depression or substance use problems. Eating disorder treatment options include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Specific assessment for body dysmorphia or muscle dysmorphia
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Family-based therapy
  • Addressing perfectionistic or obsessive thoughts

In addition to traditional treatment strategies, eating disorder programs for men should address distorted body image and stigma of eating disorders in men, as well as the possibility of co-occurring substance use. If you or someone you care about may be suffering from an eating disorder as part of a substance use disorder, contact The Recovery Village to discuss treatment options today.