Although eating disorders are more common than females than men, eating disorders are known to affect individuals of all ages, genders, race and social status. In terms of eating disorders in males, statistics show that 10 million men in the United States are affected by eating disorders and many believe this number may be higher because men are less likely to recognize their symptoms and seek treatment than women due to the greater stigma associated with men and eating disorders.

The difference between men and women in relation to eating disorders

In American culture, men are the holders of masculinity sense meaning that they are conditioned from a young age to display a physical image associated with strength, power, and success. Instead of the Barbie doll toy for girls, men are accustomed to playing with the muscular and bulky action figures, and therefore this mindset of strength and masculinity is taught early on in childhood. Additionally, the masculinity mindset is more geared towards being independent and not asking for help, even in the context of professional help for an eating disorder. Men are more likely to engage in eating disorder to have a stronger, bigger and larger figure and therefore the telltale signs of eating disorders in men may not be as apparent as they are in women. Men are more likely to take steroids and supplements, engage in unhealthy strict diets and spend hours in the gym lifting weights as a way to gain muscle mass and eliminate fat. For example, “bigorexia,” or muscle dysmorphia, is a type of body dysmorphia that is becoming increasingly common among boys and young men, influencing an obsession with muscle definition and body shape. Men often engage in restricting behaviors during the week by “eating clean” or cutting out any unhealthy food and then celebrate the weekend by having a “cheat day” where they can eat whatever they want which often leads to binging behaviors. Restricting during the weekdays and binging during the weekends is an unhealthy disordered eating behavior that can often spiral out of control and lead to a full-fledged clinical eating disorder.

Perfectionism in male athletics

Male athletes whether they are competing at the collegiate or professional level are held to a very high standard in terms of their physical abilities. The competitive sports culture is known to promote ideal body shape and body weight in athletes for them to perform at their best. Hours of training in the gym, dieting, and weight checks can eventually take a toll on these athletes potentially resulting in bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. Perfectionism, the need for control, obsessive thinking, constant dissatisfaction, and competitiveness are all common attributes that are seen in both male athletes and individuals struggling with an eating disorder. Competitive sports require mental and physical discipline and the risk of failure pushes the athlete even harder to outperform their competitor, leading many to engage in risky behaviors. Mike Marjama, a professional Major League Baseball catcher, retired at an early age from Major League Baseball to pursue a higher calling as he accepted a role as an ambassador for the National Eating Disorder Association. Marjama struggled with anorexia nervosa when he was a teenager and entered inpatient treatment five years after battling with his disorder.

“The [stereotype] is that male athletes are supposed to look a certain way and if you don’t, then you’re somehow at a disadvantage,” Marjama says. “A lot of these stigmas that we’re associating with men coming out [about their eating disorders] and feeling emasculated are ruining people’s identities. I really love the idea of being body-positive and teaching people to be confident in who they are.” Marjama talks more about his journey with perfectionism, disordered eating and his decision to leave the MLB in order to advocate for NEDA in this video during this year’s NEDA eating disorder awareness week.

Seeking an eating disorder treatment for men

The cultural and social stigma behind eating disorders in males have made men are less likely to seek treatment than women. It is important that treatment centers do their best to treat their male clients. Most treatment centers have separate tracks for men and women because eating disorders do differ between these two genders and the emotions and mentality often vary as well. It is crucial for treatment centers to offer male friendly staff that has experience in treating men with eating disorders. Since most men view eating disorders as a way to become bigger and stronger, it is wise to offer both a nutritionist and an exercise physiologist to help men understand the importance of the balance of food, exercise and strength training.