The widespread perception that only women have eating disorders is preventing men, and increasingly young men, getting the help and support they need, says a new study published in the British journal BMJ.
Estimates suggest that around 1 in 250 women and 1 in 2,000 men have anorexia nervosa, one of the four recognised types of eating disorder.
The incidence of eating disorders increasing among men, with some estimates suggesting that men now account for one in four cases.
But poor recognition of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in men is likely to mean that the true prevalence is higher, say the authors.
They interviewed 39 young people between the ages of 16 and 25, 10 of whom were men, about their experiences of eating disorders, in a bid to gauge the impact of gender on diagnosis, treatment, and support.
All the men took some time to realise that their experiences and behaviours were potential signs and symptoms of an eating disorder.
Their behaviours included: going days without eating; purging; and obsessive calorie counting, exercise, and weighing.
Some also self-harmed and increasingly isolated themselves from others.
The perception that eating disorders are a women’s problem, and particularly a problem for young women, was cited as one of the main reasons why it took them so long to understand what was happening.
One young man, who described himself as one of the lads, said he thought eating disorders only affected “fragile teenage girls,” while another said he thought these disorders were “something girls got”.
None of the men was aware of the symptoms of an eating disorder, and friends, family, and teachers were also very slow to recognise the symptoms, frequently putting the changed behaviours down to personal choices.
They also delayed seeking help because they feared they wouldn’t be taken seriously by healthcare professionals, or didn’t know where to go for support.
And their experiences of the healthcare system were mixed. They said they often had to wait a long time for specialist referral and had sometimes been misdiagnosed, or, as in one case, told by the doctor “to man up”.
The study was conducted by Ulla Räisänen, Health Experiences Research Group, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, and Professor Kate Hunt, Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow University.
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