...with Charlotte Watson 10 June 2013

An invisible group within an invisible group - men get eating disorders too

Think eating disorders are only suffered by females? Think again. Men of all ages, backgrounds, and sexualities can be affected by eating disorders.

This week (10-16 June 2013) is Men's Health Week, and this year the focus is on mental wellbeing. The week aims to tackle stigma in men's mental health and promote help-seeking in men.

Eating disorders are commonly perceived to be conditions that only affect females and this is simply not the case. Eating disorders do not discriminate and any man can find himself developing issues around eating and body image. There are several issues that make it problematic to recognise the symptoms of eating disorders in men and delay people getting help. They include:

  • The belief that men don't have eating disorders.
  • The misperception that eating disorders in men relates to sexual identity.
  • The belief that eating disorders in men only occur in young males.
  • Participating in a sport that demands a particular body build (thin or big).
  • Working in a job or profession that demands thinness.
  • A society where dieting is seen as the norm and increased media focus on 'ideal' body types, such as 'six-pack' abdominals, body building, and thinner male models.

Conflicting and poor quality data is one of the biggest problems in pinning down the full extent of eating disorders. This issue is exacerbated in males with eating disorders as they may engage in certain behaviours that are unusual for girls (such as steroid use) and so cases may be overlooked. Examples of such data includes:

  • In 2004, the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) showed that over 1.6 million people in the UK are directly affected by eating disorders, with 11% of them being men.
  • In 2007, the NHS Information Centre carried out a snapshot survey of people over the age of 16 in England and found that 6.4% of adults had a problem with food, with a quarter of this figure being male.
  • New research, led by Dr Nadia Micali of University College London, showed the number of diagnosed cases of eating disorders rose 13% between 2003 and 2009, with the highest rates of new cases were found among boys aged 10-14.

At Vincent Square, we recognise that there may be particular obstacles for men in need of access to specialist eating disorders services. Men who have had personal experience of eating disorders report that after the initial barrier of recognising their symptoms they are then faced with society's perception of eating disorders being a 'feminine thing'. One gentleman acknowledged that 'having an eating disorder can feel like one's masculinity is being undermined' and people might be deterred from getting help in case others don't believe them.

Increasing media awareness of male eating disorders is crucial so that people know that help is available. Currently, any mention of eating disorders is very limited and normally aimed at females. Actor Ashley Hamilton (of Iron Man 3 fame) recently spoke out about his battle with anorexia and bulimia, which helped to break down stigma and let other men know that they are not alone. Other males in the public eye who have spoken out about their experience with an eating disorder include Elton John, Paul Gascoigne, David Coulthard, Dennis Quaid, and former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who helped to show that you can get help and treatment even if you have been ill for a very long time.

If you are worried, your first point of call should be your GP. Taking the first step and asking for help can often be a very difficult, daunting prospect. Male eating disorders sufferers have reported difficult situations with GPs who initially disregarded them from having an eating disorder or gave the 'eat-more-chicken' response. Don’t give up. There are lots of sources of help available to you.

All outpatient eating disorder services will see men, but we pride ourselves on being one of a few London NHS services that have bespoke inpatient facilities for men. We have mixed gender staff because men get eating disorders too, and dads are as important in helping to support their sons and daughters as mothers. If you are unhappy with the help you are offered you can ask for a second opinion. You can also contact your local Patient and Advisory Liaison Service (PALS) if you have difficulty getting the help you need.

The national eating disorder charity, B-eat, has lots of information and support on its website (www.b-eat.co.uk including online forums and helplines. The charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too also has a website (mengetedstoo.co.uk) which provides further reading, an online forum and personal stories from men affected by eating disorders. It also has useful definitions of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), and the exercise disorders: compulsive exercise and 'bigorexia'/muscle dysmorphia.

Don’t be scared to admit you have a problem. Anybody could have this condition. We need to overcome the huge stigma that is associated with an eating disorder. Remember you are not alone.

Charlotte Watson

Assistant Psychologist

Charlotte Watson is an Assistant Psychologist at Vincent Square Eating Disorder Service

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