Growing up, Tyler says he was an “overweight, athletic kid.”
He was a lineman on his middle school football team, but he tells Inverse he was constantly teased about his weight.
All that changed in high school. Tyler, who asked Inverse not to use his real name for privacy reasons, stopped playing football and instead joined the wrestling team. He excelled at the sport — and quickly lost 40 pounds.
“Within 90 days I went from being chronically bullied due to my weight to being lean and skilled at effectively a school-sanctioned fighting sport,” he says. “The bullying stopped overnight. I was more popular. I’d basically switched lives.”
Unfortunately, the switch kicked off some unhealthy habits.
Tyler, now in his 30s, says the “rush of finally being in control combined with a sports culture of extreme weekly weight cutting made me a slave to the number on a scale.”
Every Saturday morning, he needed to be 171 pounds to compete in the ring. To meet that goal, he ended up “extreme dieting and extreme overtraining.”
Tyler eventually found the right balance between dieting, exercise, and health, but it took work.
Tyler’s experience is not unique — save perhaps, that he is willing to talk about it, at least to an extent. Eating disorders among men are more common than pop culture would have you believe. Here’s what you need to know if you think you or someone you care about has an eating disorder, and what to do about it.
Can men have eating disorders?
Jason Lavender, a clinical psychologist by training and researcher with expertise in eating disorders in boys and men, tells Inverse that a third of all people with eating disorders are men. Eating disorders aren’t exclusively characterized by weight loss, and that is especially true in men, he says.
“The ideal male body in Western societies is lean and muscular,” Lavender says. “So you can imagine that if your goal is to be lean and muscular, that might lead to different behaviors than if your goal is just purely weight loss.”
Eating disorders have damaging effects on other aspects of mental health, but they can also negatively affect “every organ system in the body,” he says.
There’s a fine line between a healthy exercise and eating regimen and an eating and exercise routine that is damaging for your health. Going to the gym every day may be a hallmark of a healthy gym rat, but it could just as easily be a compulsive behavior.
Here are a few guidelines to help you tell when healthy habits may have shifted into harmful behavior.
Symptoms of eating disorders in men
Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, so you’re unlikely to know if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them.
What matters, instead, are the behaviors a person engages in and the mental, physical, and social consequences of those behaviors. Here are some common symptoms things Lavender says are good to be aware of:
- Excessive exercise: If your exercise regimen regularly interferes with your social life, responsibilities, or work, then there may be something more going on. This includes aerobic exercise, weightlifting, and any other form of physical activity.
- Emotional fallout: If you become anxious or upset when you miss a day of working out or if you continue to work out in the face of injury or against medical advice, that could indicate a deeper issue.
- Extremely rigid food rules: If you’re overly rigid with food rules, calorie counting, macronutrient counting, or skip social events because you don’t want other people to see what, or how, you eat, that’s worth paying attention to, Lavender says.
- Hiding your body: Very few of us are comfortable walking around scantily clad, and that’s perfectly reasonable. But if you have extreme concerns about muscularity and others seeing your body, such as at the beach or in a locker room, or if you strongly avoid looking at your own body or feel a compulsion to wear baggy clothes to hide your body shape, Lavender says, it could be a sign of muscle dysmorphia. Importantly, this is not in and of itself a sign of an eating disorder, but it can share similar symptoms.
- Use of steroids: If you take steroids or other performance-enhancing substances designed to lose body fat and/or increase muscle mass, it may be a symptom related to eating disorders in men.
- Binge eating and/or purging: If you lose control over your eating, including binge eating, or make yourself vomit after eating, that’s a sign that seeking help is necessary. The same is true if you use laxatives or diuretics to lose weight.
Some of these concerns or behaviors on their own might not necessarily be an indication of a problem. But together or to extreme degrees, they could point to someone needing help from a medical professional to repair their relationship with food and their body.
“Strength goals were a part of my made-up standard.”
If these behaviors sound like you, or someone you know, please know that there is some good news here. There are many resources to enable you to better understand your behavior and, if needed, get professional help.
What to do if you think you have an eating disorder
First: Get online.
“A good first step is to look up some online resources and see if there’s any information you connect to,” Lavender says.
In particular, Lavender recommends the National Eating Disorder Association website. Here are some of the resources you’ll find on the NEDA website:
- A specific page of information about men and eating disorders
- Helplines (call, text, or chat) for anyone experiencing eating disorders
- Screening tools to help you work out if you might have an eating disorder
- Links to find treatment, including free and low-cost help and support groups
You can find even more therapy resources at the foot of this article.
As Tyler learned, therapy can identify the underlying issues driving the disorder and enable you to develop new, constructive strategies for addressing them.
“I’m in a much healthier place.”
Eating disorder recovery
Tyler kept wrestling in college — and his disordered habits worsened.
“I competed in college at the D1 level, but I wasn’t that good,” he says. “I was a benchwarmer. So, I fell back into old habits. I ran more, ate less, and kept cutting harder.”
“I believe that if I could drop to a lower class, I’d suddenly become a starter and become successful. Of course, this didn’t work,” he says.
Ultimately, he quit wrestling and stopped working out entirely.
After some tough post-college years, Tyler eventually started going to a gym he describes as focused on “long-term, lifelong health.” He enjoyed the camaraderie, friends, and being active. But the same old habits started to creep into his new life, too.
“I started to fall back on those compulsive habits. I had to trim weight so I could hit more pull-ups or run faster, or generally perform to the standard I’d set in my head,” he says. “Strength goals were a part of my made-up standard, so I ate more to maintain muscle, but it was the same stressors and compulsions driving my actions.”
To try to break the cycle, he sought professional help.
“I always knew the issue was rooted in workaholism and control, and until I worked with a therapist I didn't have the right coping process to address the underlying issues,” Tyler says.
“I wasn’t able to completely be at peace with myself until then. Ultimately, I still exercise, but I’m in a much healthier place with it.”
Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist tool lets you search for therapists in your area by insurance and see if they offer a sliding scale.
GoodTherapy.org also lets you search for therapists in your area and by sliding scale.
Open Path Collective is a non-profit nationwide network of mental health professionals that provide therapy at a steeply reduced rate for in-person (probably post-pandemic) and online options.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website can help you look up treatment options for, as you may have guessed, both mental health and substance use issues.
DETOX is an Inverse series that answers the biggest questions about men’s mental health.
If you have suggestions for a future Detox column, email katie.macbride [at] inverse [dot] com with “Detox” in the subject line.