BOISE, Idaho — Despite the stereotype only women suffer from eating disorders, research from the National Eating Disorders Association shows one in three people struggling with an eating disorder is male.
Men and boys battling eating disorders often go under and un-diagnosed, and according to experts, that's due in part because of a double stigma men can face when it comes to getting treatment. First, men face stigma for having a disorder that's typically associated with women and can be described as feminine, and secondly because of the idea that "real men" don't talk about their emotions.
Chris Phillips, now a college student, noticed he was struggling with an eating disorder when he was in high school. He says it started off as cutting weight for wrestling, but grew into something much more serious.
"For wrestling, many wrestlers think they'll gain a competitive edge if they cut weight and try to wrestle in a lower division than what their actual body weight is. So they'll deprive themselves of nutrients, get out all the water weight and essentially starve themselves for a period of time," Phillips said. "I was in the midst of a binge... and I pretty much just lost all hope in myself and all hope in my self control."
Millions of people across America battle eating disorders, and around a third of them are men. The question is, why don't we hear about men's cases as often as women's cases?
"There's a lot of stigma around men having eating disorders and that's because there's such a masculine mystique around seeking help and there's such a stereotype as eating disorders being a female issue," said Caley Featherstone, a therapist who focuses on eating disorders.
That stigma, Featherstone says, can be dangerous--and even deadly.
"Men are more likely to die from an eating disorder and that's largely due to lack of getting the help they need," Featherstone said.
Research shows of all genders affected with eating disorders, men and boys account for 25% of those with anorexia nervosa, 36% of those with binge eating disorder, and 25% of those with bulimia nervosa. These numbers can only account for those who seek treatment, and Featherstone believes the actual number of males battling eating disorders is even higher.
"As we begin having more conversations around men with eating disorders we're going to find that number is actually higher," Featherstone said.
Phillips says having an eating disorder, and recovering from one is hard, and he says it's a battle he'll likely never stop fighting.
"It really takes everything out of you. It's emotionally, mentally, spiritually draining all aspects of your life," Phillips said. "I realized I can be the one to backtrack, and I can be the one to fix it."
While treatment isn't the same for everyone, there are many options here in Idaho.
"Early intervention is key. Get them in to a trusted professional and get them in to a specialist. There are certified eating disorder specialists in the state, there are medical providers that specialize in eating disorders and there are resources here," Featherstone said.
In Chris's case, being able to talk about his disorder openly and finding peace with his body and mind were essential to moving forward--but it all starts with having the conversation.
"If anyone is currently struggling with an eating disorder, the number one thing is to not be afraid to ask for help. There's nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone has their own inner battles, and the second that you reach out for help is when that recovery can begin," Phillips said.
As part of starting that conversation, Chris shared his own experience at events dedicated to raising eating disorder awareness. Last year, he was a speaker at the "NEDA Walk" which is dedicated to raising both awareness and funds to support the fight against eating disorders. This year's walk is on May 2 at Julia Davis Park.
February 24 through March 1 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The theme this year is "Come As You Are: Hindsight is 2020." The National Eating Disorders Association is encouraging people in the community to reflect on positive steps they've taken--including those from setbacks--toward accepting themselves and others.
As part of National Eating Disorders Awareness week, Featherstone and her colleagues are holding an eating disorders awareness panel at Boise State on February 26 at 6 p.m. in the education building, room 112.
It's all in an effort to start the conversation about eating disorders and what to look out for if someone may be struggling.
Experts say some of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders to watch out for can include the following:
- In general, behaviors and attitudes that indicate that weight loss, dieting, and control of food are becoming primary concerns
- Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting
- Refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food (e.g., no carbohydrates, etc.)
- Appears uncomfortable eating around others
- Food rituals (e.g. eats only a particular food or food group [e.g. condiments], excessive chewing, doesn’t allow foods to touch)
- Skipping meals or taking small portions of food at regular meals
- Any new practices with food or fad diets, including cutting out entire food groups (no sugar, no carbs, no dairy, vegetarianism/veganism)
- Withdrawal from usual friends and activities
- Frequent dieting
- Extreme concern with body size and shape
- Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws in appearance
- Extreme mood swings
It's important to note someone who is struggling with an eating disorder won't necessarily have all of these signs, and the warning signs do vary across eating disorders. A full list of warning signs and symptoms can be found online.
If you do notice these warning signs, Featherstone says it's important to check in with the person who may be suffering, and encourage them to seek treatment if they need it.
If you, or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can always call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at (800) 931-2237