As we move into winter living, with the cold weather and dark nights upon us, for many of us our energies start to flag, and we look forward to the Christmas and New Year festivities. For some men, though, the festive season brings new challenges. With its emphasis on food and drink, men with eating disorders can feel particularly challenged. To mark this difficult time, I will focus my posts in the run-up to the New Year on eating disorders in men.

For many, “eating disorders” is synonymous with anorexia, but this is just one of several ways in which men experience eating distress. But what is anorexia in men?

The headline with anorexia is that the man restricts his intake of food to such an extent he becomes dangerously thin. When a man is this thin his brain is not sufficiently fuelled by nutrients, and this distorts his thinking further, and the illness can spiral out of control. If your body fat falls below 15% of your mass you are in the danger zone of anorexia. If you continue to restrict your intake of food, you may die.

Why do men get anorexia? The vulnerable time for men is in the teen years. It is during this period that we compare our physical capabilities and attractiveness with other boys. Not surprisingly, unlike girls, where our anorexia is motivated by the fear of fat, anorexia in men is often motivated by a desire to build a better physique. Anorexia in men is often associated with excessive exercise.

Trends in the media represent male beauty as involving a flat stomach with rippling abdominal muscles. For most men abdominal muscles are not visible until our body fat is at or below 14%. This is a dangerously low level to maintain our body fat. In fact professional models often “strip down” their body fat before a photo shoot and then allow it to creep up again after the shoot.

Representations of male beauty and what it means to be a man is only part of the story. For many men, they already have low self-worth before they started dieting and exercising excessively. In this sense anorexia might be a symptom of more complex underlying problems around feeling valued by family and friends. A proportion of anorexic men have had experiences of being bullied early in childhood for being overweight.

For many men with anorexia, their emotional world is extremely painful.  Anorexia, if anything, is a way of coping with that pain.  In a dark emotional world, sometimes controlling your weight is the only control you feel you have left.

For further information and support check out the Men Get Eating Disorders Too website.

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