Eating Disorders in Male Athletes

In our last article, we discussed female athlete triad syndrome which is a disorder marked by disordered eating, bone density loss, and alteration in menses. Because of the menstruation part of the triad, men cannot suffer from this syndrome. However, many people expressed concerns that male athletes also suffer from body image disorders, extreme fixation on weight and appearance, and eating disorders. We could not agree with these concerns more, and at Canopy Cove, we have treated many men and male athletes who suffer from eating disorders and wanted to dedicate today’s post to the male athletes who suffer from eating disorders or unhealthy disordered eating.

It is important to remember that athletes who suffer from disordered eating but do not meet the criteria for a diagnosis for a clinical eating disorder are still at very high risk for physical, medical, and emotional conditions that threaten the wellbeing or the life of the athlete. Waiting to intervene until they meet the criteria for a classic eating disorder is not recommended. For instance, a “normal” man may attempt to exercise off a 2,500/day calorie diet for proper nutrition and restrict intake while attempting to burn calories to drop weight, prevent weight gain, or reduce body fat may meet the criteria for male anorexia; a male athlete who should be consuming 4,000+ calories a day but restricts calories to 2,000 is putting themselves in extreme danger and is a cause for concern and intervention. Join us today as we discuss some of the aspects of a male athlete eating disorders and disordered eating and how Canopy Cove can help.

Eating Disorders in Male Athletes

Research suggests that less than 10% of anorexia cases are manifested in men. However low this number may seem, almost 50% of men who suffer from anorexia are competitive athletes. While more than 90% of those who suffer from anorexia are women, less than 10% are competitive athletes. These numbers suggest that more male athletes are at risk of suffering an eating disorder than their female counterparts. These numbers also suggest that participating in competitive sports is a significant risk factor for male eating disorders.

Athletes more likely to suffer from an eating disorder include:

  • Figure skaters
  • Ballet dancers
  • Divers
  • Gymnasts
  • Boxers
  • Rowers
  • Wrestlers
  • Long-distance runners

Despite which sports may seem more likely to lead to eating disorders, swimmers and body-builders do not suffer from disproportionate eating disorders the way the previously mentioned athletes do. All of the sports that put male athletes at increased risk are those where aesthetics are judged or their placement depends on weigh-ins.

Male athletes have admitted to skipping meals, severely restricting calories or eliminating entire food groups while increasing exercise (anorexia), inducing vomiting (bulimia), abusing laxatives (purging), or using appetite suppressants and fat burners.

Facts About Eating Disorders in Athletes

Athletes are twice as likely to develop an eating disorder.

In one study of competitive triathletes, 100% of nearly 600 participants reported they were unhappy with their current BMI

Nearly a quarter of athletes suffer from an eating disorder

Many cite uniforms, pressure, and the belief that leanness improves performance as factors contributing to their eating disorders 

Effects of Eating Disorders in Male Athletes

Many male athletes who suffer from an eating disorder admit that the pressure from peers and coaches, as well as expectations from fans and media push them to place an increased emphasis on physical appearance. For many male athletes, more body is exposed than female counterparts, and many male athletes expressed that six-pack abs and a “washboard” physique were expected and anything less would be harshly ridiculed. For men who competed in weight-dependent sports, including wrestling, boxing, or MMA, more men suffered from eating disorders that did not consider their extreme actions to “make-weight” an eating disorder because it was meant to meet a specific goal.

Restricting caloric intake or eliminating an entire food group, abusing laxatives, sweat spas, or inducing vomiting cause a severe reduction in vital nutrients and vitamins. Common conditions that result from eating disorders in male athletes include hyponatremia (low sodium content), hypokalemia (low potassium content), and protein and insulin irregularities. The side-effects of these conditions include fatigue, cramping, and cardiac complications. Other side effects include bone density loss, reduction in sex drive, and insulin production problems.

Identifying and Treating Eating Disorders in Male Athletes

Unfortunately, even though nearly 35% of male athletes suffer from an eating disorder, it is not often identified and less than 10% ever seek treatment. One theory that eating disorders go under-diagnosed in male athletes is that extreme training and rigid eating habits are encouraged and efforts are applauded. If a male athlete appears to be fit and strong, many people do not even think that an eating disorder is possible, as many people envision anorexia as a frail, thin woman. Making weight and meeting goals quickly are rewarded and can continue to allow male eating disorders to go undetected for a significant amount of time.

Some signs that may indicate an eating disorder in male athletes include:

  • Fatigue or difficulty concentrating
  • Preoccupation with food and exercise
  • Increased irritability
  • Isolation during meal times
  • Overuse injuries — strains, stress fractures, etc.
  • Rigid exercise routines or eating rituals
  • Obsession with body image
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Decreased physical and psychological performance
  • Continually training beyond coaching recommendations
  • Preoccupation with body weight, size, or shape
  • Hair thinning or loss

Male Vs Female Athlete Eating Disorder Statistics

Males make up 25% of those with anorexia and 40% of those with binge eating disorder.

10% of anorexic women are athletes and 50% of anorexic males are athletes

Nearly 25% of female athletes and 10% of male athletes suffer from an eating disorder

More than 40% of both male and female athletes in aesthetic sports have disordered eating habits

Male athletes are often overlooked in regards to concerns about eating disorders. However, many male athletes suffer from an eating disorder or disordered eating. If you meet any of the symptoms listed above or you are concerned about a male athlete you know, intervention is the key to saving their life. At Canopy Cove, we have helped many men and boys overcome their eating disorder (without compromising their ability to compete!). Our eating disorder treatment programs help to address eating and weight obsessions as well as mental and emotional concerns. To find the recovery you deserve, contact us to begin treatment today.

 

**The research mentioned in this article was not completed by Canopy Cove, but was collected by peer-reviewed sources that can be found here. For more information about eating disorders in male athletes, please visit these online resources:

Male Athletes and Anorexia, an article by Eating Disorder Hope®

Eating Disorder Among Male Athletes, an article by James Glazner in Current Sports Medicine Reports, 2008.

Eating Disorders in the Male Athlete, an article by A. Baum in Sports Medicine, 2006.

Sub-clinical Eating Disorder Characteristics Among Male and Female Triathletes, an article in Eating and Weight Disorders, 2002

Eating Disorder Statistics on the website of the National Eating Disorders Association