Men With Food Issues: Where Do You Start?

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Eating disorders are supposed to be a gender-specific issue that affects women and leaves men alone.

This is an odd misconception, of course. Estimates of the obesity rate among adults in the United States range from 35.7 percent as calculated in 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a rate that jumped from 13 percent in 1962 – to 27.6 percent as calculated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2013.

It is impossible to image there are no men n that category and data on gender divisions concludes that there are 30 million obese men and 36 million obese women in the United States. In a telling reversal, there are 43 million men considered overweight and 32 million considered overweight, a reversal from the numbers of adults considered obese in which women outnumber men.

While much of this suggests a lifestyle that has grown sedentary, there are specific gender differences that contribute to obesity in general. Men tend to have more physical jobs than women. Women frequently gain weight as a result of child bearing. While both genders are bombarded with body-type ideals related to sex appeal, it is, by consensus, considered more of a female problem to rely on looks to attract a mate.

But this certainly doesn't leave men out of the loop and it could be argued that women who suffer from body image psychopathologies in the form of bulimia nervosa (binge eating followed by purging of food) or anorexia nervosa (a fear of getting fat) can be matched by men obsessed with muscle building. The same obsession with body image, it would appear, is viewed as a pathological condition in women and viewed as a healthy obsession among men. You would hardly call someone pathological by the use of the term “health nut,” but the balancing point may be on the emphasis. Is that person (given it may e a man) overly healthy or overly nutty about their body image?

It turns out there is a gender bias when it comes to the medical profession's response to eating disorders. Studies show a man with an eating disorder is frequently diagnosed as “nervous” or “compulsive” or “depressed.” Women with eating disorders are diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating, which are recognized pathologies in medical journals.

Men, in other words, fly under the radar within the medical profession.

What is not recognized as a specific pathology is “compulsive overeating,” or “an addiction to food,” which are likely to be far more balanced between genders than other diet-oriented afflictions.

Addictions to food are certain to be a vastly under-reported occurrence among men. But it may be easy for men to identify with addiction issues in general and most addictions are sadly related in that one often follows another.

A poor self-image can lead to drug addictions. If that behavior stops, however, a recovering addict is very susceptible to turning to prescription pain relievers or alcohol self-medicate. If that behavior can be arrested, addicts find themselves seeking out other addictions. Indeed, the famous psychiatrist Albert Ellis recommended addicts turn their attention to healthy addictions, such as jogging or golf, given that reshaping behavior was easier than reprogramming the brain.

Addictions are also widely considered incurable. A recovering alcoholic is a recovering alcoholic until the day they die, no matter how long it has been since they last had a drink.

There is even a condition known as drunkorexia. This is identified as someone who limits eating in order to consume calories through drinking – a customized addiction that combines two pathologies together.

Diabulimia is also a gender-neutral condition that is characterized by someone with diabetes manipulating insulin intake in order to control their weight.

What is positive about these concepts? As a former social worker, I can clearly state that there is almost nothing as beautiful as an accurate diagnosis.

If you have a physical or mental condition and you are being treated for the wrong one – you can imagine how distracting and time consuming and discouraging this might be. The right diagnosis is a terrific development for anyone suffering from an eating disorder. If you are a man and a doctor insists on diagnosing depression to define an eating disorder, it may be your lucky day to be seen at a treatment center that specializes in eating disorder recovery for men.

Men have their own resistance to seeing themselves as suffering from eating disorders. Given the universal need for dignity, it may be useful for clinicians to agree on new terminology that allows men to walk into a treatment center with the feeling that they are in the right place. Treatment begins with acceptance and you can't have a commitment to treatment without that.

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