Misconceptions abound regarding eating disorders in men
Back in 2002, Alan Stock weighed 357 pounds. That year, the Langley resident was in a terrible car crash. He was also in the process of coming out. As a way of dealing with so much stress, Stock started walking. A lot. Then he started running. By 2004, he had lost more than 120 pounds and completed his first marathon. The more weight he shed, the more he ran and the less he ate. At last, he felt in control of his life.
But he soon had to admit that his compulsion to lose weight was in fact controlling him. By the end of 2004, Stock had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. He spent the next four years in and out of treatment.
With the season of strutting it at Kits Beach here, women aren’t the only ones who are desperate to get their bodies “beach-ready”. Men are under increasing pressure to conform to unrealistic physical standards, and as Stock can attest, they’re also susceptible to eating disorders.
“At one point, I was eating 700 calories a day and running 90 miles a week,” Stock says in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “If the weight went up by a pound or two, I would run an extra 18 miles and burn it off. I felt like I was capable of anything.
“But then my body started to fight back,” he explains, noting that he began having cardiac problems: a dangerously low heart rate as well as arrhythmias. Doctors contemplated giving him a pacemaker. They also told Stock to consider writing a will.
“It’s scary when you actually hear that from a medical professional,” he says.
In the Public Health Agency of Canada’s 2001-02 Health Behaviour of School-Aged Children survey, four percent of boys in grades 9 and 10 reported anabolic steroid use for the purpose of altering their physique. But more and more, the beefcake look is falling out of favour as the waiflike appearance gains popularity. In the fashion world, men, just like their female peers, are encouraged to be skinny to the point of being undernourished.
Psych-folk musician Devendra Banhart has boasted about starving himself to look good in clothes, while Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid have gone public with their experiences with anorexia. (Quaid called his condition “manorexia”.)
In 2007, Harvard researchers reported in the journal Biological Psychiatry the results of the first national study of eating disorders in adults. It found that 25 percent of those with anorexia or bulimia in the United States were male, as were 40 percent of binge eaters.
The University of Minnesota’s Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), a population-based study of approximately 5,000 teenagers, found that more than one-third of boys engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviours, such as fasting, vomiting, skipping meals, using laxatives, or smoking to control appetite.
Yet parents of boys and even doctors often overlook the problem.
“Even within the health-care profession, many people are surprised by the number of males who have eating disorders,” Vancouver health-care consultant and eating-disorder researcher Paul Gallant says in a phone interview.
Gallant adds that misconceptions abound regarding eating disorders in men.
“The number one misconception is that all males with eating disorders are gay,” Gallant says, noting that research shows that fewer than half of men affected are homosexual.
Yet despite the prevalence of these conditions in men, treatment and support groups are predominantly geared to women.
Stigma is another barrier to seeking help. Many men don’t want to come across as unmanly due to having a health issue so strongly associated with women.
Gallant says that to advance the prevention and treatment of eating disorders in men, their voices need to be heard. Services designed to meet their needs are vital, and research must include men.
“The message we’re giving males is not ”˜You’re not welcome here’ but rather ”˜We’re not really familiar with you,’?” Gallant explains. “So why would they want to go there? Most males don’t seek treatment.”
Causes of eating disorders are complex. Many factors combine to make men and women prone to eating disorders, including low self-esteem, perfectionism, a family history of disordered eating, childhood obesity, and depression.
According to the Toronto-based National Eating Disorder Information Centre, symptoms of anorexia nervosa include an inability to maintain a normal or healthy weight; an obsessive desire to be thinner; a fear of weight gain; repeated denials of hunger; and signs of starvation, such as hair loss, feelings of bloating, yellowed palms, and dry, pasty skin.
Bulimia nervosa is characterized by cycles of binging and purging. People with bulimia may maintain a “normal” weight but attempt to control calories by vomiting or using laxatives or diet pills. They might also exercise excessively or skip meals.
Cognitive behavioural therapy, medication, and support groups are among the approaches to treatment of eating disorders.
Aside from medical care addressing his physical and mental health and ongoing efforts to manage stress, what helped Stock deal with his condition was attending support groups for men with eating disorders.
“It was comforting to talk to people who were going through the exact same thing as me,” Stock explains. “It’s a stereotype that it’s a girls’ issue.”