Eating disorders not a problem solely of women and girls

Until relatively recently, heart disease was perceived as a man’s problem. Consequently, women were less likely than men to think of themselves as susceptible to heart disease, and therefore often delayed seeking treatment.

Even worse, the belief that heart disease was a man’s problem affected the way doctors treated female patients. If, for example, a woman presented with chest pains, doctors often looked for some cause other than heart disease. And this, of course, led to misdiagnosis, which in turn meant women did not receive proper treatment.

Fortunately, popular and medical perceptions of heart disease have changed significantly over the last few decades. But there remain certain disorders that are viewed as problems for just one sex.

Chief among these are eating disorders, and in particular, anorexia nervosa. The popular — and frequently, the medical — perception of anorexia is that it is a disorder predominantly affecting teenage girls and young women. When people hear of the disorder, they typically picture a very thin female.

It wasn’t until recently that people realized boys and men also suffer from eating disorders. The recent popularity of bodybuilding led to what came to be known as bigorexia — a term that signified some men’s desire to be as big (muscular) as possible, along with an inaccurate perception of just how big they were.

However, even with the rise of bigorexia, eating disorders — and particularly anorexia — were viewed as female disorders. Men were thought to account for, at most, 10 per cent of cases of eating disorders, when in reality, as many as one quarter of people with anorexia are male — and as many as 40 per cent of binge eaters are boys and men.

Nevertheless, the popular perception of eating disorders remains, which means, much like in the case of women with heart disease, men are likely to be misdiagnosed. Boys, men and doctors are all likely to see males as less vulnerable to eating disorders, and hence might not recognize a disorder even when they see it. Add to this the stigma associated with having a woman’s problem and one can almost guarantee that most men will not seek help.

Even worse, those rare few who do seek treatment often find the treatment less than ideal. As the Canadian Medical Association Journal documented in a pair of recent articles, men are unlikely to feel comfortable in group therapy, a common form of treatment for eating disorders, since there may be no other men in the group.

Furthermore, group discussions often focus on topics like missed menstrual periods or trying to look like models in women’s magazines — subjects that are foreign to men. As a result, men can end up feeling alienated in therapy sessions, meaning they might do more harm than good.

On the bright side, experts say the causes of and solutions to eating disorders are similar for both men and women. Hence there’s no need to start something from the ground up; rather, health professionals can likely develop effective treatments for men simply by modifying existing programs.

But, of course, men first have to seek treatment. And that means the first step is to create awareness of the problem with men. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre is doing just that with a recently launched poster and pamphlet campaign. And now it’s up to all of us to spread the word that eating disorders are everyone’s problems.

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