When you think of an eating disorder, an emaciated young woman with anorexia typically comes to mind. However, in reality, eating disorders — like the people who suffer from them — come in many forms and they’re not exclusive to women.
One type of eating disorder, binge eating, actually is found at approximately the same rate in both men and women. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that between one and five percent of the population are binge eaters, and that 60 percent of binge eaters are women and 40 percent are men. But men are seldom included in research on any eating disorders, including binge eating, according to a recent study at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.1
Using data compiled from 21,743 men and 24,608 women who took a self-assessment of their health status, the scientists discovered that binge eating was almost as big an issue for men as it is for women — about two men for every three women. There were 7.5 percent of men and 11.19 percent of women who admitted to binging in the month before the survey.
Binge eaters are at much higher risk for certain health problems such as obesity, depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels. Those with the disorder often eat large quantities of food in a small time period, are ashamed or disgusted by their eating, hide their eating from others, and feel a lack of control over their eating habits.
Since men have rarely been included in the research on eating disorders, awareness is low that men suffer from them too. Even the men who have eating disorders may not realize it, instead thinking it is normal for men to overeat sometimes. With typical portion sizes what they are in the United States, it’s not surprising that some men may have lost sight of what an appropriate amount of food to eat at a meal even looks like. And physicians will remind a male patient to lose weight and medicate him to get his high blood pressure and diabetes under control, but will rarely ask questions that get to the root of the problem and determine that they actually are binge eaters.
According to the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders, many men associate eating disorders exclusively with women and don’t think they could truly have one. Men are also less likely in general to seek out therapy when they do realize they have a problem of any kind, much less an eating disorder.
And the statistics we’ve cited may not tell the whole story. The issue of male binge eaters could even be worse than researchers suspect — the bulge on the belly, so to speak. Ten years ago, far more women than men were obese. Now those statistics have shifted, and men have surpassed women. In 2010, 27.8 percent of American men were obese, compared to 25.2 percent of women. And why is that? One possible explanation is that men don’t seem to notice as readily as women that they are gaining weight.
To make matters worse, research at the University of Wisconsin from 2008 found that overeating triggers a brain dysfunction that actually makes you overeat even more, which can lead to a host of obesity-related diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular problems.2 The scientists determined that when you take in too many calories, your brain sends immune cells to attack and destroy invaders that don’t exist. This reaction triggers a chain of events, including making the body ignore signals from leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite, and also from insulin — the blood sugar regulator.
Of course, this all adds up to a lot of bad news…unless people start getting their eating habits under much better control. Years of poor nutrition and eating enormous portions are tough patterns to break, but it’s the only way to change the cycle and regain your health. Choosing nutrient dense foods (foods with high nutritional value and low calories) is a good start, because even if you overeat your broccoli, it’s not going to pack the pounds on or clog your arteries. Use the internet as a learning tool or see a nutritionist to get the lowdown on natural, healthy foods to eat and appropriate portion sizes. Jon Barron always recommends Joel Fuhrman’s book, “Eat to Live.” Seek therapy for other underlying issues that may exist. And exercising will help you lose weight and counteract some of the damage done to your body. Plus, it’s really hard to eat while you’re riding a bike!
1 Striegel, Ruth H.; Bedrosian, Richard; Wang, Chun; and Schwartz, Steven. “Why men should be included in research on binge eating: Results from a comparison of psychosocial impairment in men and women.” International Journal of Eating Disorders. 26 October 2011. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 31 October 2011. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eat.20962/abstract>.
2 Zhang, Xiaoqing; Zhang, Guo; Zhang, Hai; et al. “Hypothalamic IKKB/NF-kB and ER Stress Link Overnutrition to Energy Imbalance and Obesity.” Cell. 3 October 2008. Elsevier Inc. 31 October 2011. <http://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674(08)01008-8>.