Eating Disorders in Boys: More Common Than You Think

CorbisEating disorders have long been associated with women, but a new study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics proves that the problem affects both sexes by exposing adolescent boys' obsession with body size and weight.

The research found that nearly 20 percent of boys aged 12 to 18 are extremely concerned with the state of their bodies, yet those around them may not know it. “Male eating disorders are greatly underestimated for two reasons,” the lead study author, Alison Field, ScD, of Boston Children's Hospital Adolescent Medicine Division, tells Yahoo Shine. “Anorexia and bulimia — the disorders we studied — are traditionally associated with a desire to be thin, a standard that men generally don’t aspire to, and many are ashamed to seek treatment because the disorders are deemed a female problem.”

More on Yahoo Shine:
Guys Get Eating Disorders Too

Big and brawny were traits that the boys studied most valued: 9.2 percent of guys were “highly concerned” with muscularity, 2.5 percent strove to be thin, and 6.3 percent wanted to attain both ideals. And many used potentially dangerous supplements, such as growth hormones, steroids, or creatine (a substance that increases energy quickly), with use increasing by age group. “While these don’t sound like high numbers, they’re significant because they're not healthy behaviors,” says Field. 

More on Yahoo: Binge-Eating Disorder Linked to Lifelong Mental and Physical Problems

Although Field didn’t study the reasons that lead to eating disorders in young men, the influx of glistening, sculpted guys on men’s fitness magazine covers and hunky role models (David Beckham, the Old Spice Guy) may be contributing to a phenomenon that Harvard researchers dubbed the “Adonis Complex,” in which men harbor crippling anxiety about their bodies. It can afflict younger boys too. According to an October story on NPR, superheroes and GI Joe action figures have become more muscular in recent years. It's no wonder that young boys consider chiseled abs and rock-hard thighs the norm. “Previous studies show that exposure to these muscle magazines and sexy advertisements contributed to steroid use,” says Field. “What’s ironic is that most of the models have been heavily airbrushed.” Other possible reasons: peer pressure for guys to resemble their buffer friends or embarrassment at the idea of changing clothes in the locker room.  

Most frustrating, says Field, is that the signs of male eating disorders are blurry at best. "Binge eating, for example, involves consuming very large amounts, larger than what other people would typically eat, but teenage boys are often ravenous so it can be difficult to pinpoint those cases," says Field. “However, noting how much boys talk about their weight, whether they put themselves down, or neglecting areas of their lives in order to exercise could be other possible clues.” Simply keeping the lines of communication open so that boys feel comfortable confiding, says Field, is key.

More on Yahoo Shine:

Study Links Eating Disorders to Childlessness
Why Adult Women Suffer From Eating Disorders
Gluten-Free Diet or Veiled Eating Disorder?