A common misconception in discussions about eating disorders is that men or boys do not develop these. However, according to a recent study by Dominique Meilleur, Ph.D and her team of researchers at the University of Montreal, males can develop a paradoxical eating disorder in their pursuit of becoming larger. In their desire to add muscle mass, up to 10% of males develop pathological malnourishment.
This meta-analysis of 24 studies conducted in England and France between 1994 and 2011, looked at 279 male anorexia patients between ages 11 and 36 (average age of 18) hospitalized for severe malnutrition. The key findings included “nearly two-thirds of them said that their dissatisfaction with their body stemmed from a desire for increased muscle mass and lower body fat.” (Sexual preference was noted and 13% identified as homosexual, suggesting that gay men develop anorexia at a higher per capita than straight men and gay or straight women.)
Further, mental health reporting found that a quarter of the males studied struggled with depression, and “18 percent suffered from some form of obsessive disorder. Substance abuse was seen among more than 11 percent.” Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, stressed that "eating disorders are a psychiatric issue, not a food issue."
Dr. Meilleur added, "We need to explore the question of sexuality and muscularity," she said. "With men it's a paradox, because the thinner they become the less muscle they have -- so they don't get to their goal.” And she added, "there is more going on here than we can see so far… But when it gets under way, a psycho-social struggle may end up manifesting in how a person eats or views their body," she noted. "And this kind of struggle, like body dysmorphia [poor body image], certainly does apply to both sexes."
"Perhaps the reason we don't think of young men as having body image issues is that the criteria we now have in place for diagnosing anorexia probably doesn't fit young men as well as it fits young women," Sandon said. "Men may want to be 'ripped,' not emaciated. They're not necessarily going after very low body weight. But if we want to know for sure we need a big sample size of male patients, and some better quality research."
The study was published recently in Neuropsychiatry of Childhood and Adolescence.
About the Author
Jake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs. He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.