When you think of someone with an eating disorder, you probably think of a teenage girl or a young woman starving herself to be thin. We hear a lot about unrealistic beauty standards causing young women to go to extreme lengths to look like a model or an Instagram celebrity. What we don’t hear much about is that teenage boys and young men develop eating disorders too; they just tend to be of a different kind.
When getting swole goes wrong.
“Eating disorder” typically brings to mind anorexia or bulimia–starving oneself or binging and purging, respectively. There are some men who do this but when men become overly preoccupied with body image, they’re typically trying to build muscle. For example, one study found that of adolescent boys who exercised regularly, more than 90 percent had the primary aim of building muscle, often using protein and creatine supplements or even steroids to help them along.
You may be thinking “Of course teenage boys are going to work out mainly to gain muscle,” but that only indicates the extent of the problem. There are many possible goals for exercise but men and boys are overwhelmingly preoccupied with gaining muscle. Consider one paragon of masculinity, the Roman soldier. Roman soldiers had little use for muscular athletes, who needed lots of food and sleep. Soldiers preferred to fight alongside men who could march 50 miles a day on a bit of hard tack and a ration of pork.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with working out to try to get stronger and build muscle but it can go too far. One study of bodybuilders found that more than half of competitive bodybuilders had muscle dysmorphia, a form of body dysmorphic disorder. That means that no matter how muscular they got, they still perceived themselves as thin and weak. This is similar to how women with anorexia or bulimia see themselves as fat despite being dangerously thin. Just as with women, men with muscle dysmorphia may become obsessive about exercising more, eating “clean,” tracking macros, and so on.
Competitive athletes are also at risk.
The other major group of men at risk for developing an eating disorder is competitive athletes. Many competitive sports, especially combat sports like boxing, wrestling, and judo, divide competitors by weight class and athletes often get obsessive about making weight. Other sports, such as gymnastics don’t have weight classes but athletes still derive advantage from a high strength-to-weight ratio. Competitors may go on crash diets in the days and weeks leading up to weigh-in, then binge before they compete to rebuild their strength. This pattern is bad for your health and performance and it is especially bad for younger athletes who are still growing. These patterns of obsessive eating and exercise may persist into adulthood.
Exercise and healthy eating are important elements of addiction recovery. However, it’s also important to have a healthy attitude toward those things and toward yourself. It’s far more important to be healthy and feel good about yourself than it is to have huge biceps or five percent body fat. At Tree House Recovery of Portland, Oregon, we use exercise as a tool in a holistic treatment program aimed at improving your physical, mental, and emotional health. Call us today (503) 850-2474 to learn more about our addiction treatment options.