underrepresented and underweight: men with eating disorders

February is eating disorders awareness month. Eating disorders are battles often fought behind closed bathroom doors. As ones self-esteem is a fairly private matter, admissions of having an eating disorder are difficult obtain,  and so become plans for recovery. But this private matter is one that plagues twenty-four million (roughly four times the population of the entirety of Tennessee) members of the American public. This private matter needs to become public concern.


For those of you unacquainted with this category of mental illness, eating disorders are defined by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) as “unhealthy relationship with food and weight that interferes with many areas of a person’s life.” A person struggling with an eating disorder is characterized by the ANAD as having “unrealistic self-critical thoughts about body image, and his or her eating habits may begin to disrupt normal body functions and affect daily activities.”


There are three kinds of eating disorders. The first is Anorexia Nervosa, in which the person fears weight gain and takes extreme measures to avoid it, including abstaining from eating certain foods or abstaining from eating at all. The second is Binge Eating Disorder, in which a person  “uncontrollably” consumes large amounts of food in a very short period of time, “to the point of feeling sick or uncomfortable,” says the ANAD. The third is Bulimia Nervosa, in which a person binge eats and then vomits in order to “purge” themselves of the calories as a consequence of an intense fear of weight gain.


Tennessee is responsible for over two hundred seventeen thousand of the twenty four million Americans who suffer from eating disorders. 150, 836 of these Tennesseans  (according to 2007 data courtesy of ANAD) are women. Men are no less vulnerable to the media’s constant barrage of what a beautiful body looks like. So what could account for the overwhelming under-representation of men with eating disorders?


The answer may lie within the way society has stigmatized eating disorders. Socially, eating disorders have been labeled as a “women’s issue,” effectively edging out the men who also need to ask for help. The term “eating disorder” for many conjures up images of rail-thin, tiny teenage girls. But the language which defines “eating disorder” does not say it is an obsession with “thinness,” but an obsession with one’s weight. A male with an eating disorder may look very different from a woman with an eating disorder. As opposed to idolizing a skinnier figure, he become overly concerned with muscle gain and abuse muscle supplements under the guise of pursuing a healthier, fitter, and happier lifestyle.   


Leigh Cohn, author of Current Findings on Males With Eating Disorders, has found that “close to 40 percent of young men have an eating disorder and may be too scared to admit it, if they’re even aware of it in the first place,” as reported by Healthline. The article continues, “


“Men are exercising because they think it’s healthy, but they don’t know enough about metabolism and nutritional value,” he [Cohn] said…it’s not uncommon for boys concerned with their looks to overexert themselves through exercise and not eat enough to compensate…this habit can turn into an exercise addiction.”


In addition to men, there is yet another type of person underrepresented in most conversations about eating disorders: athletes. According to a 1999 study released by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, being an athlete can triple a person’s likelihood of having an eating disorder. As a state which prides itself on its athletic prowess, Tennesseans must be aware of these issues.


February is Eating Disorders Awareness month. This often silent struggle is not only one that heavily compounds one’s likelihood of having depression or an anxiety disorder, but also one that can lead to death. If you suspect that you or a loved one suffer from an eating disorder, there are two treatment centers you may visit in the greater Nashville area. The first is The Renfrew Center in Brentwood (615.221.7075), and the second is Nashville’s The Integrative Center (615.891.2226). It’s never too late to bring in the new year by kicking out an eating disorder.


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