Summer triggers for male eating disorders

School of Medicine building 

Sun, sand and swimming may sound relaxing but for an increasing number of men summer is a stressful time as they grapple with concerns about body image.

These concerns may seem benign but they can lead to 'eating-disordered behaviour' and, in some cases, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and muscle dysmorhphia.

Psychologist, Deborah Mitchison, from the University of Western Sydney School of Medicine says the social demands of summer holidays can be particularly difficult for the 41 percent of men who have experienced one of the eating disorders or behaviours at some time in the lives.

"Medical referrals for men with eating disorders increase over summer," says Ms Mitchison, who has studied the survey responses of over 3000 adults randomly selected for a health behaviours survey.

"Summer is a time when many men may become preoccupied with their physical appearance. This can lead to the use of extreme weight-control behaviours and, in some cases, binge eating. Such behaviours can, in turn, lead to avoidance of social situations and isolation."

Research conducted by Ms Mitchison and colleagues has shown in the decade 1998 to 2008 eating-disordered behaviour increased across all demographics but faster for males.

She says extreme weight loss behaviours such as very strict dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, and taking laxatives are increasing at a significantly faster rate in males.

Compared to the 1998 survey, the number of men in 2008 who said they practiced at least weekly extremely strict dieting or went on fasts in order to alter their weight had more than doubled.

The proportion of men who went on at least weekly eating binges, where they felt that they had lost control and could not stop eating, also increased markedly during this period.

Ms Mitchison says males may be less likely than females to recognise that their eating behaviour is pathological and also less likely to consider seeking professional help for such behaviour or other mental health problems.

"Males may be reluctant to acknowledge that they have an eating disorder because they think it's something only females experience," says Ms Mitchison.

"Men with an eating disorder may feel ashamed, stigmatised and somehow 'less manly'. They don't know how people, including their doctor, may react."

The community has come a long way in recognising and providing support for females with eating disorders. However, Ms Mitchison says there is a considerable lag in providing tailored support for men.

"GPs often do not recognise eating disorders in their male patients which may further delay the patient from receiving the treatment they need."

Ms Mitchison encourages GPs to consider eating disorders when males with body image concerns present at their clinics.

She says research indicates education and treatment programs for eating disorders need to be broadened to better reflect the diversity of people with the disorders, including not only males, but older women.

"There are effective treatment options available, including cognitive behaviour therapy. However, males may not be aware of that they have a problem that requires specialist treatment or may feel uncomfortable accessing this sort of treatment."


28 January 2015

Media contact: Paul Grocott, Senior Media Officer