More and more men are feeling the pressure to be thin and look good, according to a presentation at the American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference in St. Louis.

“Males are taking on our unhealthy obsession with thinness and perfection, and as a result we are seeing an increased incidence in eating disorders in males” says Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CDN. Kronberg is the director and co-founder of Eating Disorder Associates Treatment and Referral Centers and has been treating clients with eating disorders for more than 25 years.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, there are about 1 million men with serious eating disorders and tens of millions who have some form of eating disorders.

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Why the Increase?

The number of men with eating disorders has been growing for the last 10 years. Kronberg points out that the biggest cause of eating disorders in men is the idea that they can change their bodies to be more perfect.

“From a very young age, boys are surrounded with media messages of what they should look like,” Kronberg says. “Action figures present subtle messages of unrealistic role models of well-sculpted, heavily muscled, ‘perfect’ bodies that little boys see as their role models.”

Popular culture plays a role in new male attitudes, Kronberg says. “It is due in part to our culture that values the beautiful, thin, and perfect physical exterior instead of what is on the inside. The cultural message suggests that if you don’t like your body or face, you can fix it and bigger is better.”

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Changes in the Role of Men

In addition, the traditional role of the male caretaker has been threatened, Kronberg says. “In this chaotic and unpredictable world, men feel vulnerable. As a result, they overcompensate by doing things such as taking steroids or body building to excess to feel more masculine.”

Another factor may be the empowerment of women, Kronberg says. Men used to be the only ones at the top of the corporate ladder. As women assume more of these roles, men feel compelled to enhance their masculinity to make themselves feel more “manly.”

After being exposed to the perfect body ideal, men that don’t have a strong sense of self go in search of ways to feel better about themselves. “More men are coming to see me to lose weight not because their doctors sent them but because they want to look good,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN.

Taub-Dix is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. One-third of her weight loss clients are men, a figure that has grown substantially in the last 10 years.

Kronberg says that at any given time, 25 percent of men are on diets and 41% are dissatisfied with their weight.

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Early Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

If your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, or actions around food, weight, exercise, or body image interfere with the quality of life, emotional well-being, or physical wellness, you may have an eating disorder, says Kronberg. “Essentially, when the obsessions interfere with you being able to be you, it is time to seek professional intervention.”

Eating disorders manifest as disconnections from body and self. “Overexercising or withholding food anesthetizes the body much like drugs and alcohol that individuals use to compensate for feelings of inadequacy,” Kronberg says.

Who Is at Risk?

The following groups of men have an increased risk for developing eating disorders:

—Athletes, especially those that participate in sports that work against gravity, such as gymnastics, are the most vulnerable to eating disorders.

—Men with gender issues.

—Certain personality traits such as perfectionism, impulsive behaviors, and those who have anxiety.

—Obese boys who face teasing and have low self-esteem.

Kronberg advises parents to be healthy role models and teach their children how to have perspective and balance. “It is perfectly normal to want to look good, exercise, and eat healthfully.”

The problem becomes evident when the goal to exercise or control food intake takes priority over everything else in one’s life. “An early warning sign is when the desire to improve the quality of one’s life becomes all-encompassing and starts controlling the individual,” she says.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference, St. Louis, Oct. 22-25, 2005. National Eating Disorders Association web site. Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CDN, director and co-founder, Eating Disorder Associates Treatment and Referral Centers. Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.