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Although eating disorders are more often associated with women, anorexia in men and boys does exist and can be serious.

Although the pressures of unrealistic body expectations affect women around the world, many men are also concerned about this topic.

Perfect hair, nails, figure and skin are all marketing arguments that can cause an overfocus on appearance. Male celebrities and models may represent a similar version of unattainable or unrealistic “ideals”.

Men can experience many of the same body image issues as women, but they are often driven to act like such things don’t affect them.

Anorexia is a serious disease that can cause health problems and become fatal. But recovery is possible with the right treatment plan and the right support.

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age or gender.

Men living with eating disorders may be less likely to seek treatment due to the stigma of being seen as unmasculine or conveying weakness.

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa in men, can be associated with different personal factors when they occur in men. Although the focus is on women when it comes to anorexia, most people don’t know what symptoms to look for when men are living with eating disorders.

Even medical questionnaires designed to assess disordered eating habits may use language more appropriate for women than for men, contributing to underdiagnosis.

Although anorexia is even more common in women, up to 0.3% of men can suffer from anorexia in their lifetime.

Living with male anorexia or eating disorders does not mean you have feminine traits. Having an eating disorder does not indicate your sexual orientation.

Anorexia nervosa is a mental health condition that can be stimulated by unrealistic bodily expectations set by media and social circles, regardless of:

  • sex
  • race
  • personality
  • sexual orientation

Even some heavily weight-focused sports can encourage unhealthy weight loss habits, such as:

  • catch
  • race
  • swim
  • bodybuilding
  • mixed martial arts
  • rowing
  • gymnastic
  • dancing

Many men and boys suffer from eating disorders trying to be lean and muscular, which is often described as the ideal body type for men.

Why is male anorexia associated with being a gay man?

Part of the stigma surrounding male anorexia is its association with the gay community.

Research has shown that between 10% to 42% of men with eating disorders identify as gay, although some experts believe that gay men may be overrepresented in studies of eating disorders. However, gay men may also be more likely to seek treatment than men of other sexual orientations.

Alternative body norms may explain why male anorexia is often associated with being a gay man.

Before the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the ideal gay male body was thinner and leaner, compared to body types in other groups and communities. However, some experts have suggested that the impact of the AIDS epidemic on homosexuals and homosexuals may have changed gay male aesthetics and extreme thinness became associated with being sick or ill.

The ideal gay male body can be expected to be more muscular and lean in many circles.

This can encourage disordered eating habits as men strive to feel attractive to potential mates.

Specific disordered eating habits, such as binge eating and purging, may be more prevalent among gay men. Gay and bisexual men may be more likely to try to control their weight by:

  • young
  • vomiting
  • use laxatives
  • use diet pills

Despite these links between male anorexia and the gay community, most men living with an eating disorder are generally heterosexual.

Anorexia tends to show up in early adulthood. People of all genders seem to be motivated by the same motive to respond to their perception of being thin.

For girls living with anorexia, “thin” often means exceptionally thin – low body weight. They may just want to fit the smallest size possible and not worry about strength or the appearance of toned, defined muscles.

Male anorexia can often be about being lean rather than lean, although not all men living with anorexia are concerned about the appearance of muscle mass.

In men and boys, this eating disorder often means being thin while looking strong.

Unlike some women who are obsessed with losing weight, many men with anorexia may not only restrict their diet, but may also:

  • overexercise
  • take an abundance of supplements
  • use steroids
  • try fad diets designed to build muscle and reduce fat

Many people believe that low body weight is the most obvious warning sign of anorexia. But the male body shape can hide excessive weight loss more easily than a female body.

This may mean that “looking thin” is one of the last warning signs of male anorexia to be noticed.

Road signs

Warning signs of male anorexia can include:

  • frequent visits to the bathroom after or during a meal
  • hyper-focus on training, even when injured or in bad weather
  • binge eating
  • dress in layers
  • deny being hungry
  • food avoidance
  • strict eating rules or habits
  • fixation on nutritional information or calorie count
  • constant weight
  • avoiding social gatherings where food is served
  • stress or anxiety when a workout is missed
  • excessive preoccupation with strength training or physical development
  • statements about being unhappy with their weight or body image
  • the occurrence of food rituals, such as arranging food in a certain way

Signs and symptoms

Signs of male anorexia can include:

  • decreased libido
  • feeling weak or lethargic
  • cold intolerance
  • digestive problems
  • abnormal lab levels, such as anemia or low hormone levels
  • dizziness or fainting
  • sleep disorder
  • slow or poor healing
  • impaired immunity
  • yellow skin
  • dental changes
  • hair thinning or loss
  • cuts or swelling of the hands and fingers
  • difficulty concentrating

The 5 warning signs of anorexia

Anorexia can have many subtle warning signs. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) recognizes some classic diagnostic features, regardless of gender, including:

  • restriction of energy intake which leads to significantly low body weight
  • intense fear of gaining weight
  • persistent behavior that interferes with weight gain
  • feelings of low self-esteem or disturbance related to weight or body shape
  • lack of awareness or recognition regarding the seriousness of low body weight

Like other eating disorders, no single cause behind anorexia nervosa, regardless of gender, has been identified.

Some research 2021 suggests that environmental and biological factors may influence the development of an eating disorder.

Risk factors

Many factors can increase your risk of suffering from anorexia or eating disorders, such as:

  • have a traumatic experience
  • limited social networks and isolation
  • solitude
  • acculturation
  • perfectionism
  • low body image satisfaction
  • history of an anxiety disorder
  • cultural weight stigma
  • to be bullied
  • diet story
  • regular energy deficits due to illness, athletics, or diet
  • have a close relative living with an eating disorder or mental health issue
  • a natural inclination toward inflexible thinking or behaviors
  • intergenerational trauma

Anorexia nervosa can lead to serious and life-threatening health complications. But with treatment and support, you can manage the condition.

Medical care

If you or a loved one suffers from anorexia, it is essential to consult a doctor. Your healthcare team may recommend supervised recovery in a care facility, depending on the severity of:

  • weightloss
  • state of malnutrition
  • any physical challenges you may notice

Doctors at a treatment facility can help stabilize your:

  • hydration
  • nutrition
  • physiological function

Therapy

Seeing a therapist can also be helpful. Anorexia can cause many physical effects, but understanding what drives your behaviors can make a major difference in your recovery outcome.

Some types of therapy commonly used for anorexia and eating disorders include:

Medication

Although not usually first-line treatment for eating disorders like anorexia, medication can also be part of your recovery process.

Medications can help relieve symptoms related to depression or anxiety, which can coexist with anorexia.

Certain medications can also help counteract physical changes you may have experienced, such as digestive issues or hormonal imbalances.

Medicines can only be prescribed by a doctor. It is essential to follow directions on taking prescribed medications if they are part of your anorexia treatment plan.

If you’re living with male anorexia, it’s natural to worry about the stigma created by unfair expectations and myths.

Anyone can develop anorexia nervosa, regardless of who they are. Millions of men have lived with an eating disorder.

Fear of being called “weak” or having your sexual orientation questioned can prevent you from seeking professional advice. But anorexia can be serious and life-threatening.

Healing is possible and it is important to seek help from a doctor and a therapist. Typically, treatment options for anorexia include:

  • medical treatment, sometimes in an institution
  • therapy
  • medications, in some cases

If you want to know more about male anorexia, you can visit the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

If you feel overwhelmed or don’t know where to start, you can speak to a trained mental health representative by calling SAMHSA National Helpline to 1-800-662-4357. You can also check out Psych Central’s guide to finding a therapist.