Men with eating disorders are failed because conditions are seen as 'women's illnesses', scientists claim

Some men said they did not know the symptoms of eating disorders, while one patient was told to "man up" by a doctor.
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A perception that eating disorders are “women’s illnesses” is stopping young men from receiving the help and support they need, according to a new study.

While some figures estimate that males account for a quarter of eating disorder cases, young men who suffer from diseases including anorexia are “underdiagnosed, undertreated and underresearched,” according to a study published in the online journal ‘BMJ Open’ on Wednesday.

To make their findings, scientists interviewed 39 young people aged 16 to 25, including 10 men, who they found from patient organisations, social media, and via healthcare professionals.

Participants were questioned about their experiences when they were diagnosed with an eating disorder, as well as the treatment and support they received after.

The idea that eating disorders only affect young women was cited as one of the main reasons that men go undiagnosed.

Researchers explain that young men did not know that: obsessively counting calories, exercising and weighing themselves excessively, or purging themselves were behaviours symptomatic of eating disorders.

One young man, who described himself as “one of the lads,” said he thought eating disorders only affected “fragile teenage girls."

This was compounded by the fact that friends, family and teachers were very slow to recognise that the men were suffering from eating disorders - instead viewing shifts in behaviour as personal choices.

It was only when the young men reached a crisis point or were admitted to A&E that they realised they had a disease, they said.

But, when men were diagnosed, the situation did not improve. Participants reported long waiting times for specialist referral, and were sometimes misdiagnosed. In one case, a young man was told “to man up” by a doctor.

They also complained that information on eating disorders was insufficient in general, but help for men specifically was particularly sparse.

"Our findings suggest that men may experience particular problems in recognising that they may have an eating disorder as a result of the continuing cultural construction of eating disorders as uniquely or predominantly a female problem,“ said Dr Ulla Raisanen and Dr Kate Hunt from the University of Oxford and University of Glasgow teams who ran the study.

Eating disorders cost the NHS between £50 and £70 million, while anorexia has the highest death rate of all adolescent psychiatric conditions, the study points out.

Russell Delderfield, Trustee of the national charity Men Get Eating Disorders, wrote on The Conversation: “What are we doing to change the fact that we still have a society that has raised men to believe that there can even be such a thing as a feminine mental health condition? Slightly scarier still, why is having a “women’s illness” such a bad thing?”

“It’s important that more people learn that eating disorders are a men’s, as well as a women’s, issue, not least because prognosis is improved with early detection,” he added.