Eating disorders are most often associated
with young women, but a new study suggests young men can also become obsessed
with their appearance and go to extremes to enhance their bodies.
The problem can resemble a traditional
eating disorder or involve use of drugs and supplements, according to US
researchers, and it tends to go along with depression, binge drinking and recreational
"The results of our studies would
suggest we need to be thinking more broadly about eating disorders and consider
males as well," Alison Field, the study's lead author, said. She is an
associate professor of paediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital.
eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, in which a person refuses to eat,
and bulimia nervosa, in which someone binge-eats then purges through vomiting
or laxative use. "For a lot of males, what they're striving for is
different than females," Field said.
"They're probably engaged in something
different than purging."It has been estimated that one in every 10 cases
of an eating disorder occurs in men.
For the new study, Field and her colleagues
used survey responses collected between 1999 and 2011 to see what concerns
teenage boys had about their bodies. Field's team also wanted to know if eating
disorders were tied to later unhealthy behaviours, such as drug and alcohol use.
The surveys were answered every one to three years by 5 527 boys who were
between ages 12 and 18 at the start of the study in 1999.
The researchers found that 31% of the teens
had – at some point – binged on food or purged. About 9% reported a high level
of concern with their body's muscularity and about 2% were both concerned about
muscularity and had used some type of supplement, growth hormone derivative or
anabolic steroid to enhance it.
of those products rose to about 8% when the researchers looked just at 16 to 22
year olds."The results from this study would suggest that males who are
extremely concerned about their physiques are doing or using things that may or
may not be healthy," Field said.
"There are a whole range of products
available online that we don't know if they're healthy or not," she said.
"We know when a lot of them are tested, they're not what they're marketed
to be." Those young men who used enhancement products were also more likely
than their peers to binge drink and use drugs, the researchers found.
Concerned about thinness
In her mind, Field said the behaviour of
those young men could be the male equivalent of binge-and-purge disorders,
because they're using the products to alter their bodies. About 6% of the young
men surveyed said that in addition to muscularity, they were also concerned
about their thinness.
Overall, though, young men were more likely
to be focused on muscularity and that concern increased with age. Between 2% and
3% were concerned only about their thinness. Those young men were more likely
to develop symptoms of depression later on. "We think about a lot of
disorders and diseases that look different in males than females," Field
said. "This is another example and we need to remember
that. These are not likely to be healthy behaviours," Dr Evelyn
She is a professor of psychiatry at
Columbia University Medical Centre and Weill Cornell Medical College in New
York. "The overwhelming number of people – often young men – who are
thinking about needing to change their body by using some of these supplements
is certainly something the family should know about and we as clinicians should
be aware of," Attia said.
Airbrushed and shaded
added that those behaviours and the use of those supplements should be tracked
for future research. At this point, she said, it's hard to say whether these behaviours
are truly eating disorders. Field said it would be unrealistic to expect young
men and women not to be concerned about their weight or their bodies, but for
some it's all they're concerned about.
"The images these teens are seeing of
models don't even look like that," Field said. "They've been
airbrushed and shaded... so everyone believes they have unbelievable
definition in their abs and arms." The new research appeared in JAMA Paediatrics.
authors note that the survey's respondents were mostly white and middle class,
which may limit the study's relevance to other populations. Field suggested
that doctors and parents should be aware of their patients' or children's
attempts to change their bodies to make sure it's being done for the right
reasons and in a healthy way. "It's a good time to have that
conversation," she said.