The facts

Below are some useful facts about eating disorders in men including the prevalence, age of onset and the common risk factors.

Whilst we endeavour to ensure all information in this section is correct we cannot guarantee that it is entirely accurate or up to date, mainly due to the lack of research available on this subject. Feel free to contact us if you have found any information that is worth us including in this section.

Statistics

Conflicting and poor quality data is one of the biggest problems in pinning down the full extent of eating disorders in the UK and indeed the world. According to Beat information from the Department of Health only shows how many individuals received inpatient treatment. This only captures only a very small percentage of cases, since as much as 50 per cent of treatment is provided by private clinics and only the most severely ill will receive inpatient care.

Health statistics usually refer to two types of data – Incidence: the number of new cases in any given period; and prevalence: the total number of new cases existing at any one time. Since eating disorders can endure for several years, prevalence figures are significantly higher than incidence figures. However those who don’t seek help and those who are seriously ill may not be in treatment services and won’t be in the statistics.

The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines on eating disorders showed that 1.6million people in the UK were affected by eating disorders in 2004 and 180,000 (11 per cent) of them were men. Other studies have suggested similar figures.

In 2007 the NHS Information Centre carried out a snapshot survey of people in England over the age of 16. It found that an alarming 6.4 per cent of adults had a problem with food, a figure much higher than previously thought. A quarter of this figure was men suggesting a possible increase in the number of males affected.

Recent reports  from the Royal College of Practitioners has indicated a 66 per cent rise of male hospital admissions.  However it is thought this new figure could still be the tip of the iceberg.

Age of onset

Males of any age can develop an eating disorder but they are most likely to begin between 14 and 25 – it is not unusual to have an eating disorder in middle age. This increased likelihood could have something to do with transitions.

Risk factors

Even though comparatively little research has been carried out on eating disorders in men, it does seem apparent that many of the commonly known risk factors are applicable. In particular the role of eating disorders being a coping mechanism, or an expression of, underlying emotional stress – this is applicable to males as much as it is females. This means any unresolved distress consequently presents a risk to developing eating problems.

In addition, there are a number of other risk factors that can contribute:

  • They were overweight and/or teased about their size. Bullying seems to be a common experience for adults as well as children.
  • They are dieting – one of the most powerful eating disorder triggers in both males and females and as much as 70 per cent of young people will diet at one time.
  • They participate in the sport that demands a particular body build (thin or big). Runners or jockeys are at higher risk of developing an anorexia and bulimia, while footballers or weight lifters will focus on getting bigger (known as ‘bigorexia’). Wrestlers who try to shed pounds quickly before a match so they can compete in a lower weight category seem to be at special risk. Body builders are at risk if they deplete body fat and fluid reserves to achieve high definition.
  • They have a job or profession that demands thinness. Male models, actors, and general entertainers seem to be at higher risk than the general population.
  • Some, but not all, male sufferers can be gay or bisexual. There is debate why the gay and bisexual male community is at particular risk but this may be partly because they are judged on attractiveness in the same way that women are in the heterosexual community. Fear of coming out and worry about rejection is also a possibility. In a study carried out by the Eating Disorder Association, they found that 20 per cent of male sufferers were gay making up twice the proportion of gay men in the population. However, a number of factors could contribute to the inaccuracy of this figure mainly being that it is possible that gay men are more likely to seek help than their straight male counterparts.
  • Living in a culture of fixed diets and physical appearance is also a risk factor. Male underwear models and men on the front pages of male fitness magazines and gay men’s press lead other males to compare themselves with these so-called ‘ideal’ body types – so do ads for men’s hair and skin care products. Weight loss and workout programmes as well as cosmetic surgery procedures, whose goal is chiselled muscularity can lead to the same sort of body dissatisfaction that afflicts women who read fashion magazines and watch movies and TV shows featuring so-called perfect people.

Research also continues to investigate if biological factors could also play a role. Numerous studies have investigated genetics and hormonal links to the biological explanation for eating disorders.  One biological factor with a definite link to the development of eating disorders is personality type. Some personality types, including obsessive compulsive personalities, are much more susceptible to developing eating disorders.

'Men Get Eating Disorders Too' is a registered charity in England and Wales no. 1139351.

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