Men in pursuit of perfect bodies may succumb to eating disorders

Male Eating Disorders_Large

As a high school gymnast in Massachusetts, I discovered the anguish of great expectations.

I trained hard, stayed lean and won national titles. But during my junior year, I hit a slump.

Battling the rising expectations began to wear on my psyche and led me to see a sports psychologist, hoping to cope with all the pressure.

The lessons I learned were invaluable. My doctor gave me permission to have a bad day. That was huge. I was able to let go of critical self-talk, move on and forgive myself for my mistakes.

I was able to be more successful.

I bounced back to have a stellar senior season and then earned an athletic scholarship to Ohio State, where I competed from 2000-04 and contributed to two Big Ten Championships.

Now, I’ve turned that valuable life lesson into a career. As a sports psychologist, I help athletes with rising expectations, specializing in helping those who develop eating disorders. It’s a problem I noticed during my own years as an athlete.

In the increasingly competitive world of sports, many athletes try to get an edge. And that often leads to improper diets.

There’s a false belief that eating disorders are limited to women, but men can overdo their diet and exercise routines while in pursuit of the perfect body.

The myth in gymnastics and other sports is that smaller is better. That’s what I was told. A lot of men focus on physique and gaining muscle versus losing fat. They have a preoccupation with biceps or abs – not only gaining muscle but being very lean.

It's difficult to do. It takes specific training, nutrition and balanced diet, correct assortment of foods, not just fat and protein. It has to be done delicately and under the guidance of an expert.

Eating disorders tend to occur more in sports in which aesthetics is important, such as gymnastics, diving, ballet and figure skating. Participants might believe that lighter is better, which isn’t always the case.

Eating disorders in men are more under-diagnosed than similar disorders in women. While women often talk more about cutting calories or losing weight, men more often concentrate on bulking up – gaining muscle versus losing fat.

It’s even possible that professionals might miss the diagnosis of eating disorders in men because of the smaller numbers and the stereotype that women are the only people who have these problems.

But roughly one in three people struggling with eating disorders is male, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

What’s happening inside the mind of someone with an eating disorder? It’s complicated. The influences of eating disorders on individuals vary, and include family influences, societal messages, contextual messages, genetic influences and interpersonal influences.

Common themes include “I’m not good enough,” “I fear I won’t fit in” or “I’ve lost my identity.” So some might focus on body shape or fat as a way to cope with larger, more difficult psychological concerns.

The first step to treatment is to recognize there might be a concern. The second step is to reach out to a trusted healthcare professional, who’ll hopefully point you person in the direction of a mental health professional who has a specialty with eating disorders.

There are four main levels of treatment for eating disorders:

  1. Outpatient care, usually once a week
  2. Intensive outpatient care, usually three days a week for three to five hours a day
  3. Partial hospitalization, or PHP, five days a week for eight hours a day
  4. Inpatient care, being seen every day in a hospital setting to attain medical stabilization prior to beginning therapy on the eating disorder concern

In order to make real changes, you must need or feel the need to change. Social support is also vital to being able to make a change and shift a way of thinking.

James Houle is a sports psychologist who specializes in eating disorders at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.