January 11, 2017

5 Myths About Men & Eating Disorders

Myth #1 – Male eating disorders are a new phenomenon

Lately there’s been a lot of media attention about the increasing prevalence of disordered eating in boys and men. In my clinical experience, of more than a decade of working with people with eating disorders, I have treated many men and boys.

It’s always been a problem – but a secret, hidden problem – and now more men and boys are seeking help.

For many years, people associated eating disorders with teenage girls, but the reality is that adult women, as well as boys and men also struggle with this – and have for years.

If you’re human, you can struggle with disordered eating.

Myth #2 – Only younger guys or gay men get eating disorders

Some of the men in my practice are in their 50s and 60s and they have been batting disordered eating for decades, but only recently sought treatment.

Part of the reason that men are seeking help is that more men are coming forward and speaking out about their experiences, which is paving the way for others. Brian Cuban recently wrote a book called Shattered Image, in which he talks about the 27 years he was bulimic and had from body dysmorphic disorder.

John Bukanis hosts a podcast called Lets Reverse Obesity, in which he candidly shares his decades-long struggle to overcome binge eating disorder.

There are also organizations dedicated specifically to men with eating disorders. Men Get Eating Disorders, Too, and The National Association for Men With Eating Disorders are helping to address this issue.

So, male eating disorders have existed all along, in the dark, and people like Brian, John and others are shedding light on the issue and mitigating some of the shame, which makes it easier to talk about.

I recently asked Brian Cuban, author of Shattered Image, what he thought were the biggest misconceptions about men and eating disorders.

He told me that most people think men don’t struggle with disordered eating, or that only gay men have eating disorders, or that it’s a teenage problem and certainly not something a guy in mid-life would be dealing with.

He also said, “People tend to believe that men who suffer from eating disorders are not ‘real men’ as society defines us.”

Very powerful. Many men can resonate with this, and feel very alone, as if they’re the only guys in the world who are dealing eating problems. If your genetic code is an XY male chromosome, you can develop an eating disorder. If you’re human, you can develop an eating disorder, regardless of gender, ethnicity or age.

Myth #3 – Eating disorders in men are different than in women.

Some of the names are a little different: manorexia, which refers to male anorexia, but it’s still anorexia; and there’s bigorexia, which refers to an obsession with being big and muscular (these are not clinical diagnoses, by the way).

Guys may be more concerned with fitness and muscularity than women, but ultimately eating disorders are about trying to change your body as a way of changing your life, or communicating something about your internal world.

In that regard, all people with eating disorders are the same, whether someone is restricting, bingeing and purging, purging, or over-exercising. The behavior is an attempt to deal with psychological conflict through a physical action.

People who have eating disorders will say things like, “It’s all about food, it’s all about losing weight, it doesn’t have to do with anything else”… but the reality is, male or female, it is about something else.

In our culture, men are expected NOT to have emotions, and if they do, they’re seen as weak, feminine and unacceptable.

Whatever is going on with food is a symptom of an underlying problem, not the real problem (although of course it “feels” like the problem). People have to identify and work through the core conflicts and feelings that lead to the behavior, rather than focusing on the behavior itself or on food, or their bodies.

Myth #4 – Eating disorders are about food and body image

Eating disorders are very complex and complicated. Food, body image, and cultural expectations are part of the picture, but ultimately eating disorders develop as a way of coping with conflicts and emotions.

John Bukenis from Let’s Reverse Obesity, told me, “It is a struggle with emotions. Men are not allowed to show certain emotions that could be perceived as feminine.”

Men have grown up with the message that emotions like anger are acceptable, but anything vulnerable such as sadness, loneliness, or fear are not. In fact, the very existence of those emotions is often perceived as feminine or weak.

One man recently told me, “I’m a dude. I don’t have feelings.”

I said, “Well, dude, yeah, you do. Because human beings have feelings, and you’re human. And those feelings need your attention.

Although this message is especially powerful when it comes to men, this is a societal expectation that causes problems for everyone, male and female, and it has a lot to do with the prevalence of so many addiction problems in this country, or maladaptive ways of dealing with our internal world.

Angry? You have an anger management problem.

Sad? You’re depressed, take an anti-depressant.

Anxious? There’s a pill for that, too.

Scared? Be strong! Fight! Don’t give in to fear!

Even if you’re happy. Are you too happy? A little manic?

It’s no wonder so many people, male and female, have a hard time recognizing that emotions, needs, desires and reactions are part of being alive, not a character defect. When you can’t give yourself permission to express what’s going on inside, it comes out in other ways.

Instead of expressing in emotional pain, some people eat until they’re in physical pain.

Instead of attending to overwhelming emotions that feel like too much, some people eat too much or tell themselves their bodies are too much.

Instead of processing hurt or disappointment towards others, they become disappointed in themselves, or they decide that a perfect body will bring them a perfect life.

These are all ways of displacing feelings, wishes, wants and needs and making them into something that’s a physical problem. It doesn’t work. You can’t resolve an emotional or psychological conflict through taking physical action.

When you don’t identify, process or cope with uncomfortable or feelings, because you view the very existence of those feelings as weak, or wrong, you’re vulnerable to turning to disordered eating to deal with those feelings.

Myth #5 – If you’re strong enough, you can overcome an eating disorder

Willpower is not an effective way to stop eating disorder behavior. Problem eating serves a purpose; it’s a way of numbing, distracting or expressing painful or upsetting emotions. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the only way to get rid of feelings is to actually feel them. You can’t think them away, push them away, eat them away, or starve them away.

So instead of judging yourself for having emotions, ask yourself what’s going on. Are you mad, sad, glad, or afraid?

It’s also essential to remember that a feeling is a reaction to a situation, not a reflection of your character. It doesn’t make you weak to have feelings; it doesn’t make you a girl, it’s doesn’t make you weak or bad; it makes you human. And that’s a good thing.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, you have to develop an acceptance of your emotions, needs, wants, thoughts, and wishes. When you do that, and make peace with yourself, you are far more likely to make peace with food, as well.

About the author

Nina Savelle-Rocklin, Psy.D. is a Los Angeles-based psychoanalyst who specializes in weight, food and body image issues. She is a recognized expert in eating disorders, interviewed and quoted by the Los Angeles Times, Prevention, Real Simple, Huffington Post and many other publications. She is considered a thought leader in eating psychology and is a regular contributor to the Eating Disorder Hope website and the National Eating Disorders Association blog.

Dr. Nina brings a fresh perspective to the treatment of disordered eating, helping people understand “why” they turn to food instead of focusing on the behavior itself. She writes an award-winning blog, Make Peace With Food, hosts a popular podcast, Win The Diet War with Dr. Nina, (voted “New & Noteworthy” by iTunes the first week of release) and offers “food for thought” on her video series, The Dr. Nina Show. She is currently writing a book for Rowman & Littlefield on the psychoanalytic treatment of eating disorders. For more information, please visit www.winthedietwar.com.


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