4 Warning Signs Of An Eating Disorder In Men

When you think of eating disorders, you may immediately imagine a teenage girl, or perhaps an older woman - someone who is determined to look like the supermodels they see on television or in the pages of her favourite glossy mag. While this stereotype might be true on occasion it is still, ultimately, a stereotype. Eating disorders are complicated and they can present themselves in anyone, for a number of reasons, and although it isn’t discussed as often, eating disorders can greatly impact men of all ages.

In fact, people with eating disorders can sometimes look healthy and appear to be in great physical shape, making the disorder difficult to diagnose. This can be particularly true for men, as they are sometimes more focused on creating athletic, muscular physiques. While eating well and exercising are great habits to have, focusing too much on building muscle and shedding fat (to the point that it overtakes every aspect of daily life and becomes an obsession) can be incredibly unhealthy.

In this article, I’ll be looking into the most common type of male eating disorder and some key warning signs to look out for when it comes to general eating disorders in men.

1. Eating disorders vs body dysmorphia


Some research has shown that the most common presentation of eating disorders among the male population is related to muscle building. This obsession with building a muscular physical appearance is generally referred to as ‘reverse anorexia’ or ‘bigorexia’ and is becoming increasingly common in young to middle-aged men. However, this particular presentation of disordered eating is currently categorised as body dysmorphia (a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder) rather than an eating disorder. Body dysmorphia does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with disordered eating, however, with ‘bigorexia’, both protein supplementation and dietary restriction are usually involved.

Of course, this isn’t to say that men are not immune from suffering other eating disorders such as anorexia, binge eating or bulimia. It is simply the case that less than 1% of all eating disorder research focuses specifically on males, so we know very little about the key signs and whether they differ from those of females. It is also understood that men typically find it more difficult to come forward and discuss their issues due to stigma and out of fear of being perceived as unmasculine.

Let's look at some warning signs that will help you identify whether you or any men you know have an eating disorder or body dysmorphia.

2. Strict eating rituals

If you're starting to notice that someone is becoming obsessed with counting calories and weighing out each individual food item they consume, they could be suffering from an eating disorder.

While monitoring what we eat and staying away from junk food is a good thing, for the most part, obsessing over how much or how little we consume can become unhealthy. As previously mentioned, it is not uncommon for men with ‘bigorexia’ to use protein supplementation and dietary restriction to work towards their ‘goal’ body type. However, doing so in an obsessive manner can hinder a person’s ability to function well both physically and mentally. Rapid weight loss or gain, intense fatigue, anxiety and depression are all associated with both body dysmorphia and general eating disorders. So, while it might seem that someone is living a healthy lifestyle, it could actually be a warning sign.

3. Obsession with lifting weights and bodybuilding

body builder

While weightlifting and bodybuilding can be healthy pursuits, especially if you're looking to get stronger and boost self-confidence, they can become destructive if they are done in excess.

Sometimes, men (and indeed women) who pursue weightlifting or bodybuilding will obsess about their physiques to the point where nothing is ever good enough, and no matter how much they train, they will always feel like they're lacking. This thinking will likely bring an element of compulsion to the training and have a domino effect when it comes to mental well-being. If somebody is training excessively (for example, continuing to visit the gym even after an injury or during unusual hours) it may be time to suggest they seek professional help.

4. Previous problems with food

If you or someone you know has had an unhealthy relationship with food in the past, the chances of suffering from an eating disorder or body dysmorphia are much higher. Particularly if someone has been severely overweight, they may subconsciously be compensating for this by exercising or undereating excessively. Research has shown that men are more likely than women to use exercise as a compensatory behaviour. Also watch for binging, purging and bulimia.

Inability to focus on anything that doesn’t concern food or exercise

man on sports ground

Dedicating time to our physical well-being is always important, and for those looking to take better care of themselves and lead healthier lives, it can become a significant part of their day-to-day activities. However, spending every waking moment obsessing over your weight or the number of calories you’re eating (to the point that you’re neglecting other responsibilities) can be a serious red flag.

This type of hyperfocus can be exhausting and even lead to physical and mental health issues. If you are struggling to focus on other elements of your life, or are noticing this in any friends or family members, it may be worth suggesting they seek advice from an eating disorder specialist.

How to help someone with an eating disorder

Approaching and offering help to someone with an eating disorder isn't always easy, as many (particularly men, as previously mentioned) will prefer to avoid talking about it. With this in mind, it's important to go in with a casual tone and try not to force the conversation. Of course, encouraging people with eating disorders to speak to a professional is always the best and safest option, but as a friend or loved one you can play your part in helping guide them towards this.

The Awareness Centre offers a wide range of treatments and therapies to help people tackle eating disorders. If you or anyone you know wants to talk about eating disorders, or needs some help dealing with one, get in touch with a specialist to arrange a consultation.

About the Author: Amy Launder is an intersubjective psychotherapist with The Awareness Centre, offering counselling and psychotherapy services. Amy works with a variety of clients covering issues including low self-esteem, abuse, anxiety and depression.

*Collaborative post

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