‘You feel like you are alone in your own bubble’: What it’s like to have an eating disorder as a man

Men seeking help for eating disorders in England has risen 27 per cent

When we hear the words ‘eating disorder’, we usually instantly attribute the illness to females. Expectations to look a certain way, pressure from social media, size zero shop mannequins and fad-diets make the headlines as being the reasons for the development anorexia or bulimia in young, teenage girls.

Although women make up 75-80 per cent of cases, an investigation by BBC Breakfast has found men receiving treatment for eating disorders in England has grown twice as fast compared to women. Male outpatients increased by 27 per cent, compared to female out patients who saw a 13 per cent increase in the last three years.

According to eating disorder awareness charity, Beat, 725,000 people have an eating disorder in the UK. 15-20 per cent of these are men.

The increase in male out-patients may appear bleak, but Beat have been quick to highlight the increase could be a reflection of the stigma surrounding mental health lifting, with more people with eating disorders seeking treatment.

The Tab spoke to two men who have overcome eating disorders, and asked them why they think more men in England are now seeking treatment.

Richard had anorexia twice between 12-15 and 18-22. He had a strict eating regime, whereby if he broke it he would “punish” himself, developing his eating disorder. Richard told The Tab: “Anorexia affected my life massively. I had to quit my job as I wasn’t physically strong enough to do, wouldn’t go out with my friends to the pub or out to dinner for fear of being judged. At home I would eat alone and upstairs. I had very strict rituals surrounding what I could eat or when and if i didn’t abide to that I would punish myself.

“My eating disorder stems from the idea of punishment, I deserve to be hungry and can only be allowed X amount of food at X time. That’s why I couldn’t eat or drink out as I was not deserving of that sustenance.”

When asked why he thought male eating disorders were on the rise, Richard attributed the lack of control young men can feel due to money problems could develop a need to control something else – such as food. Richard said: “One could argue that the crazy high cost of housing and the unaffordability of this housing, especially around London, means that young males feel unable to move forward in the world and take control of their own destiny. Therefore the eating disorder becomes a form of control.

“I think the nature of today’s society, cruelness and arrogance can be attributed to the rise in mental health problems across the board. Society is at its most technologically advanced but is also at its most distant and self absorbed. Being looked down upon all the time by others can strain one’s self confidence then eating disorder can take hold as losing weight can be seen as a path to be seen as perfect.”

Louie, 23, had an eating disorder between the ages 12-16. He received treatment and counselling after he took his “love of sport” to the “extreme”, and was unable to balance nutrition and exercise. Louie told The Tab: “I had an eating disorder for roughly four years I’d say after treatment and counselling. It was mainly due to my love of sport and not finding the right balance when it came to nutrition and training.

Louie described his eating disorder like living in a “bubble”, one where only the thoughts inside his head made sense, despite people around him giving him help. He said: “I felt that I was fine however my mental and physical state were not performing to the level I wanted, it was very frustrating not having a clear head.

“You feel like you are alone and in your own bubble, where only your thoughts make sense. You listen to professionals and your closest and dearest, but you rarely take in or hear what they are trying to say.”

Since recovering, Louie still regularly goes running and plays football, but now at a “leisure level”. Where people may listen to music or play an instrument, he recognises playing sport is a way for him to beat stress and clear his head. Louie said: “In many ways I have a completely different mindset because now I have motivation and reasons to not fall back into that state of mind.

“I feel amazing now, stronger than ever to be honest. I still have a massive love for football and running I still do both now at leisure level, I also do a regular amount of weight training in the gym. It keeps my mind clear.”

A spokesperson from Beat told The Tab the increase in figures attained by BBC Breakfast may indicate a rise in awareness in male eating disorders, encouraging men to professional seek help. They said: “Unfortunately there remains a lack of understanding about eating disorders, which can make it even harder for sufferers to seek help. While eating disorders are often stereotyped as an illness that affects only women and girls, up to a quarter of sufferers are thought to be male, and there may be many more male sufferers who do not feel able to seek help.

“These findings might indicate a rise in the number of men and boys suffering, but they also might indicate increasing awareness of eating disorders in men among both healthcare professionals and wider society, and an increasing number of male sufferers who feel able to come forward about their illness.

“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and early treatment gives a far greater chance of recovery. If we are to see everyone access the treatment they need as quickly as possible, it’s vital that everyone is aware that eating disorders can affect anyone, and gender is not a factor.”

If you have an eating disorder, or want to help someone who has one, visit Beat’s website for guidance.