Remember the lyric, "Boy, you're going to carry that weight a long time"? It's the first line from a track on the "Abbey Road" album. The Beatles anthem-which hints at the existential gravity of growing up male-may have been referring to more than psychological weight. "In 1999, of all the people who had eating disorders, 1 out of 10 were men; today it's 1 out of 4: a 150 percent increase in prevalence," says Raymond Lemberg, PhD, a psychotherapist in Prescott, Ariz., and coeditor of Current Findings on Males with Eating Disorders. He also developed EDAM, an eating disorder assessment for men that's in the process of being finalized. "More men are seeking treatment now or being identified in treatment, and there are more programs where men can get help," he says.
And yet, the National Eating Disorders Association says that while male body image concerns have dramatically increased, men are still less likely to seek help for overeating, fewer men receive treatment than women, and eating disorders for men are under-diagnosed.
Body Image Issues
Eating disorders in men, which include overeating, undereating, and binge eating, may be triggered by painful emotions and distorted feelings about body image. Many feelings are aggravated by popular culture. "It's predominantly driven by the media," says Richard Bedrosian, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of behavioral health at Johnson & Johnson Health & Wellness Solutions. "In a mainstream movie, a man takes off his shirt and you see a low percentage of body fat, rippling biceps, and 6-pack abs. That's the model that's starting to take its place beside the unreasonable expectation of females."
While women have historically borne the brunt of having their bodies objectified, changing representations of the male form have proliferated over the past decade. "The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator," says Lemberg. "Men are identified as targets like women have been in the past from media pressure. In fashion, fitness, and exercise, there's money to be made." Even action figures have slimmed down and added muscle-and may do Barbie one better for distorting the human body.
But while it's acceptable to see men eat a whole pizza by themselves, with women, it's considered taboo. So men may not even recognize that they have a problem.
"There's a social stigma not only in American culture but also across the mental health field," says Bedrosian. "And the stereotype of the strong silent male argues against men getting help."
How Certain Foods Set Up Cravings
There is also a physiological component involved in overeating. Most notably, there are more foods today than ever before that have been "fine-tuned" to our physiologies, says Lemberg. "Scientists develop tastes using simple sugars and simple carbs-"feel-good" foods that change brain chemistry and produce an increase in serotonin," he says. These "craveable" foods are hard to escape-they're widely available and often inexpensive. Eventually, some people can become addicted to these foods and use them to self-medicate for depression and anxiety.
What's the solution? Try to make peace with food: Eliminate trigger foods by keeping them out of your house. And find alternatives for favorite junk foods (e.g., fruit and Greek yogurt instead of ice cream; nuts instead of chips or crackers). Be honest with yourself: Which foods cause you to overeat and which can you eat without over-doing it? For example, if you can't eat one serving of potato chips, leave them out of your diet, at least for now. But avoid being rigid or restrictive, as this type of approach can backfire and lead to bingeing. Before eating a questionable food, ask yourself, "How am I going to feel after eating this?
"Eating has that ability to soothe us temporarily," says Bedrosian, who adds that food can become a coping strategy for life. And overeating can develop into a habit, a way of escaping the current moment or filling up empty time.
For over-eaters, it's important to establish a stable, predictable pattern of eating-a routine in which you plan meals in advance and develop alternative coping skills to deal with negative emotions that give rise to a binge. Instead of eating when you're upset, find other things to do.
Getting Help for Yourself or Another
Whether or not you suffer from a full-blown eating disorder, there are ways to help yourself, a male friend, or family member with an overeating problem.
Here are some strategies adapted from the National Eating Disorders Association:
- Share specific times you've felt concerned about his eating behavior.
- Convey that you want to help, while respecting his boundaries. Sometimes bingeing is a cry for help, and it makes a difference to know you're there for him.
- Use ‘I' statements. Instead of starting sentences with, "you," as in "You're hurting yourself!", say, "I'm concerned you might be hurting yourself. How can I help you with this?" That way, in all your conversations, your focus will come from your feelings. Stay out of judgment. He's judging himself enough already. Offer support.
7 Therapies for Over-eaters
With treatment, the majority of male eating disorder sufferers can recover and start building satisfying, productive lives. Here are seven strategies that can help men struggling with eating disorders.
1. Nutrition Counseling allows men to identify certain nutritional needs that women don't have. To find a holistic nutritionist, visit the National Association of Nutritional Professions online at nanp.org.
2. Natural Antidepressants. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 37 percent of men who binge eat experience depression. Certain nutrients are known to reduce depression and/or anxiety. And others can help lessen episodes of binge eating. According to Jeanette Ryan, DC, a Los Angeles-based chiropractor, inositol powder tends to work extremely well at diminishing the urge to binge. Also consider St. John's wort, SAM-e, L-theanine (an extract from green tea shown to ease anxiety), and ashwagandha (an Ayurvedic herb that is effective for a wide range of stresses, including depression).
Probiotics are also essential and work by improving gut health. A growing body of research shows that there is a direct connection between a healthy gut and depression.
3. Other Supplements: Vitamins A, B, C, and E and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc help support optimal brain activity and balance appetite. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as fish oil supplements, can help relax muscles and relieve stress and depression.
4. Cognitive Therapy can be adapted for younger male patients. Cognitive Restructuring Techniques are aimed at identifying and shifting negative thinking or distorted views in regard to body image and weight, specifically focusing on the male body. To find someone in your area who practices this type of therapy, visit nacbt.org, the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists.
5. Family Therapy allows family members to recognize the signs and symptoms of the illness. Men are often helped by "coming out of the closet" about their eating in this kind of family support dynamic.
6. Alternative Therapy: Mind-body medicine might include music therapy or meditation; whole medical systems use traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda; manipulative and body-based practices treat with chiropractic and
osteopathy; energy medicine includes Reiki and Qi gong; biologically based practices focus on nutrition and herbal medicine.
7. 12-Step Programs use the Alcoholics Anonymous model, which encourages people to share stories of their eating behaviors with a sponsor and a larger fellowship, and to seek the help of a higher power to develop a spiritual solution to the problem. There are some meetings for men only. And it's free. Visit oa.org to learn more.
While it may be embarrassing for guys to admit that they have an eating disorder, help is available if one is willing to look for it-and accept it. As the media landscape changes how the male form is supposed to look, men get distorted ideas about body image. But there is a solution out there to help us carry that weight.
For more information on male eating disorders, including an infographic on the subject and a free screening test, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org/silent-epidemic.
"In 1999, of all the people who had eating disorders, 1 out of 10 were men; today it's "1 out of 4: a 150% increase in prevalence."
-Raymond Lemberg, PhD
Do You Have an Eating Disorder?
- Do you eat when you're not hungry, or not eat when your body needs nourishment?
- Do you go on eating binges for no apparent reason, sometimes eating until you're stuffed or even feel sick?
- Do you have feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment about your weight or the way you eat?
- Do you eat sensibly in front of others and then make up for it when you‘re alone?
- Is your eating affecting your health or the way you live your life?
- When your emotions are intense-whether positive or negative-do you find yourself reaching for food?
- Do your eating behaviors make you or others unhappy?
- Have you ever used laxatives, vomiting, diuretics, excessive exercise, diet pills, shots, or other medical interventions (including surgery) to try to control your weight?
- Do you fast or severely restrict your food intake to control weight?
- Do you fantasize about how much better life would be if you were a different size or weight?
- Do you need to chew or have something in your mouth all the time: food, gum, mints, candies, or beverages?
- Have you ever eaten food that is burned, frozen, or spoiled; from containers in the grocery store or out of the garbage?
- Are there certain foods you can't stop eating after having the first bite?
- Have you lost weight with a diet or "period of control" only to be followed by bouts of uncontrolled eating and/or weight gain?
- Do you spend too much time thinking about food, arguing with yourself about whether or what to eat, planning the next diet or exercise cure, or counting calories?
If you have answered "yes" to several of these questions, it is possible that you have an overeating problem.