I was a 30-year-old male with a graduate degree. I was a physical therapist. I went to the gym every day. I shopped at Whole Foods. On the outside, I appeared healthy.
What nobody knew is that I also had an eating disorder. For years, it was my secret.
Women aren’t the only people who suffer from eating disorders. While they represent the majority of cases, there is a large minority that is male. In fact, one-quarter of people with anorexia nervosa are male. [i] These numbers are even higher among male athletes. [ii] I know, because I was one of them.
Origins of my Eating Disorder
What caused my eating disorder? In retrospect, there were several obvious factors. First was my tendency to be perfect. Perfectionism is a common theme among my clients and people with eating disorders. This desire for the perfect body and perfect health can lead to extreme behavior.
The second was my desire to meet an ideal. Look at the health and fitness magazines and you see pictures of men with “ripped” or “chiseled” bodies, six-pack abs, 6% body fat, broad shoulders, and a tapered torso.
While I still marvel at the hard work these men put into their fitness, I realize that many of these photos have been enhanced, that these men also work out for a living, and that they have genes that select for these kinds of traits.
The same traits that make Michael Phelps an Olympic swimmer (large torso, broad shoulders, short legs), and Hicham El Guerrouj an Olympic 5k runner (long legs relative to total height), are also the same traits that give many of these fitness models a great body. I can work out all day, every day and never come close to these ideals.
I don’t blame fitness magazines for eating disorders. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves, do what’s best for our bodies. However, it’s hard not to cite mass media as one cause for male eating disorders. Mass media portray “alpha males” as being tall, muscular, and ripped.
Third, I blame social isolation. Isolation has its benefits and problems. The ability to be alone and happy is a great thing. We can’t always be with other people, and we can’t depend on others to make us happy. But it’s not a coincidence that my eating disorder arose at the most isolated part of my life: college.
It was at this same time that I took up triathlon and endurance sports. It’s not a coincidence that I was drawn to sports that place the emphasis on the individual. These are sports that also emphasize low body weights. Every extra pound can be detrimental to performance.
Research has shown that body weight is a strong determinant of performance in endurance sports. [iii] And other research has shown that up to 1/3 of men who participate in weight-dependent sports can develop an eating disorder.[iv]
Finally, I blame fear. Part of my desire for being lean and skinny was my fear of growing up. I saw all the middle-aged men in my life and most of them had a “beer gut” and were out of shape. I was determined not to go that route. In fact, I still am! I don’t want my health to fall by the wayside as I grow older.
Today I realize I didn’t need to fear anything. I can’t stop time, and every day I’m a little older. All I need to do is take proactive measures to avoid the fate of most middle-aged men: taking the right supplements, lifting weights, meditating, eating a plant-based diet, etc.
I only sought help once during my journey. I met with a therapist a few times to talk about the beliefs that underlay my behavior. At the time, I denied I had an eating disorder but I remember on her last visit, she said, “I still think you have an eating disorder.” Only a month later did I start to chew and spit food and develop the insatiable appetite to binge and purge.
I chose to suffer in silence. I was sure I could overcome my ED’s on my own. Eventually, I proved right, but only after a decade of dealing with them. I won’t call my 20’s a lost decade, but I wasted a lot of time and energy on my eating disorders. What’s worse is that all I needed to do was change a few beliefs and correct a few habits.
For years, I thought that recovery was “around the corner.” I was sure that next week, next month, next assignment, next whatever was going to change everything. The problem is, I believed this for 10 years of my life. At the time, I didn’t know it was going to last that long. I was chasing a mirage. Recovery was always close, but I could never attain it.
What Men Should Do
What should men do if they have an eating disorder? I believe that the way out for men is the same as it is for women. For anybody with an ED, the first step is to recognize that you have a problem. This seems obvious but when I was orthorexic and when my health was falling apart, I denied that I had a problem. Only when I started chewing and spitting food and started to binge and purge do I finally admit I had a problem.
The second step is to recognize that today is the day to start recovery. For too long, I put off recovery because I was certain that some change in my environment or my living circumstances was going to change my behavior. Instead of taking 100% ownership of my problem, I kept thinking “tomorrow” would be the day that everything changed. Start taking ownership today.
The third step is to discard perfectionism. Perfectionism leads to eating disorders, which means it can’t be a part of recovery. For too long, I thought I had to be perfect after a certain date or else I wasn’t truly recovered.
One mistake gave me permission to misbehave and go back to day 1. I had to understand that recovery was a process, not a one-and-done event. That process doesn’t have to take years, but I had to accept that the recovery process wasn’t always linear.
The resources that are available today are better than they were when I was a young, vulnerable college student. Today we have YouTube videos, Facebook groups, books, and online coaches and therapists that can help with this. A few years ago, when I was at the nadir of my eating disorder, I would have never thought that one day I would become a coach for people with eating disorders. But I am, which shows that recovery is possible for anybody.
Men can participate in endurance sports, life weights, and take other measures to improve their physique and body image. Increasing muscle mass, staying healthy, and looking attractive to the opposite sex are not unhealthy or unnatural behaviors. But be honest: how far are you willing to go to achieve this? Examine your behavior and recognize the signs of an eating disorder: restrictive diets, obsession, weighing all your food, compensatory exercise, purging, etc.
If you have these types of behaviors, then try to talk to someone who has had the same problem and has recovered. He or she is only one click away. Or call the National Eating Disorders helpline: (800) 931-2237. They can guide you to professional resources near you.
[i] Mond, J.M., Mitchison, D., & Hay, P. (2014) “Prevalence and implications of eating disordered behavior in men” in Cohn, L., Lemberg, R. (2014) Current Findings on Males with Eating Disorders. Philadelphia, PA: Routledge
[ii] The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Food for Thought: Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) Columbia University; New York: 2003.
[iii] Knechtle, B., A. Wirth, C. Alexander Rüst, and T. Rosemann. 2011. The Relationship Between Anthropometry and Split Performance in Recreational Male Ironman Triathletes. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine 2(1): 23–30.
Also cited in: Fitzgerald, Matt. Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance (The Racing Weight Series) (p. 264). VeloPress. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Sport Nutrition for Coaches by Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, 2009, Human Kinetics. Byrne et al. 2001; Sundot – Borgen & Torstviet 2004