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Do Boys Have a Harder Time Coping With Eating Disorders?

Peter was 13 years old when he started skipping meals, refusing to eat certain foods and weighing himself compulsively. He lost weight, became depressed, began isolating himself from friends and abandoned all the activities he used to enjoy.

Despite showing classic symptoms of anorexia, Peter went undiagnosed for several months. His parents finally grew so concerned that they sought professional help.

Yes, Boys Develop Eating Disorders

We don’t see many examples of boys with eating disorders on TV or in movies, but Peter’s story isn’t that uncommon. Eating disorders are more often associated with teenage girls, so the problem often goes undiagnosed in boys. We already know that males struggling with eating disorders tend to face additional shame and social stigma, but new data indicates there’s a lot more to the story.

According to a new study, boys who have eating disorders actually experience more psychiatric difficulties as a result – especially depression. They also tend to wait longer to seek treatment than their female peers.

Some of the most concerning takeaways of the study were that boys:

  • Showed symptoms of the illness for longer periods of time than the girls
  • Lost nearly twice as much weight before being hospitalized
  • Were more likely than the girls to also experience depression, substance use and have a history of suicidal ideation

These findings are of “particular significance,” said Dr. Samuel Ridout, a psychiatrist at Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, “because males complete suicide at much higher rates, at about 3 to 1.” That means the consequences of not diagnosing an eating disorder could potentially be more severe for boys.

Boys and Girls Are Different

Boy coping with an eating disorder sitting alone It’s important not to generalize, especially because this is just one study and the sample size is small. But still, the findings suggest a need for “…early detection and intervention (especially in boys) and vigilance for both depression and suicidality in all individuals with eating disorders, regardless of sex,” said Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, an eating disorders specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

There are various factors that could explain the difference in eating disorders between teen boys and teen girls. Much of it may have to do with cultural assumptions and the way eating disorders are perceived and diagnosed. Past research suggests that higher risk of co-occurring psychiatric conditions, like depression, could be associated with more severe eating disorders, said Dr. Anu Raevuori, adjunct professor in adolescent psychiatric epidemiology from the University of Helsinki in Finland.

“Previous studies also suggest that males with eating disorders have more somatic and psychiatric comorbidities than females with eating disorders,” said Dr. Raevuori. “It might be that only those males with more severe eating disorders are detected in the clinical setting, while males with milder symptoms simply go unnoticed.”

Dr. Raevuori also said that people may be more vulnerable and experience more psychiatric problems if they have disorders that are considered “atypical for one’s sex and against traditional gender roles.” So, in a society that pressures (and expects) women and girls to struggle with their weight, boys and men are not immune…but they may not be receiving the attention and care they deserve. And what’s more, they may be afraid of being judged or ostracized once people find out they’re struggling with an eating disorder.

If you know a male with an eating disorder, let him know that he’s not alone and remind him that it’s okay to ask for help.