Are Our Teenage Boys Suffering from a Silent Epidemic?

eating disorders males boys
Girls aren’t the only ones who struggle with eating disorders. (photo credit:

Many of those with eating disorders suffer in silence, afraid, ashamed, and unable to ask for help.   The National Association for Anorexia and Associated Disorders (ANAD) estimates that only 1 out of every 10 people with an eating disorder ever receive treatment which is more than tragic when you consider the dangers these disorders create.  And new research indicates that there may be more people with eating disorders suffering in silence than previous estimates indicated because the problem is affecting males more often than believed.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from different medical institutions and was published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal.  The intent of the study was to determine if males who experienced disordered eating were more likely to experience other problems like depression and obesity over time.  The study ran from 1999 to 2011 and involved more than 5,000 teenage males from all over the country.

What the research team found may result in a broadening of how we think about disordered eating and the classification of different kinds of eating disorders that are more specific to males.   The current classifications which include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder (BED), and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) are seen in both men and women, but are more likely to be seen in women whose primary concern is often thinness.  Because teenage males have different concerns about their body than teenage girls, males may exhibit different kinds of disordered behavior which is neither classified nor diagnosed.

It also showed that almost 20% of teenage males are extremely concerned about their body and that these teens are more likely than their peers to engage in dangerous behavior including the use of alcohol, drugs, and supplements.    Most experts agree that about 1 in every 10 people with an eating disorder is male but according to the study’s lead author, Alison Field, this ratio is likely much smaller because the current criteria for diagnosis center on symptoms displayed by women which are proving to be different than those experienced by men.

One of the primary differences between males and females with disordered eating highlighted in the study results is what each gender is trying to achieve.  For women, it is generally thinness which leads to disorders like Anorexia Nervosa which causes people to stop eating and Bulimia which results in a cycle of extreme overeating followed by purging.  For males, the focus is more on masculinity, on building musculature which leads to different behaviors.  For example, almost 8% of the study’s 16-22 year old participants admitted to using some form of supplement, growth hormone, or steroid in an effort to attain the desired result.  Field points out that this type of behavior may be the equivalent to the binging and purging seen in women who have bulimia.

The signs and symptoms of eating disorders in males are the same as those in females at this time, which means many males will remain undiagnosed.   Perhaps one of the most positive outcomes of this new study will be a change in how we think about disordered eating and men.



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