Muir Wood therapist, David Laing
Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services is a Joint Commission-accredited mental health and substance use disorder treatment provider located in Petaluma, California. We provide integrated evidence-based care including psychiatry, psychotherapy, experiential therapy, wellness services, and milieu therapy for adolescents and teens, and their family members.

Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders, Crash Diets and Substance Abuse: Male Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complicated problem, and teen boys might be intensely reluctant to discuss the issue with anyone at all, but it could be at the root of the way a child behaves when food is involved.

Parents of adolescent boys are often expected to keep the refrigerator full of tasty snacks, and the cupboards loaded with quick meals that can be whipped up at a moment’s notice. In families like this, food can work as a substitute for affection, meaning that the amount a child eats can seem akin to the amount that child is loved. Even so, if a teen boy doesn’t seem willing to eat, a parent might be relieved at the change, wondering how much less the groceries might cost each week. If the boy starts eating huge amounts, on the other hand, a parent might swell with pride at the joy the teen seems to demonstrate regarding the family larder. In general, however, these little changes in appetite cause little more than a flicker of attention, as parents might simply attribute them to the changing demands of a growing body that’s in constant flux.

That’s unfortunate, as some appetite changes that manifest in adolescent boys come about due to eating disorders, and sometimes, those eating disorders come with a nasty side order of substance abuse.

Common Food-Based Disorders

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that 10 million men who live in the United States will have some kind of eating disorder at some point in life. Even though the disease is commonly associated with women, particularly adolescent girls, it’s a disease that can strike almost anyone, at any time. The way in which an eating disorder can manifest can be strikingly different, however, and there are three specific sets of behaviors that are commonly used to differentiate different types of eating disorders.

Those who restrict their calories through sheer willpower, taking in very little food or focusing on eating only specific types of food, are showing signs of anorexia nervosa. People like this might look in the mirror and feel as though their bodies are impossibly fat, when their bodies actually have very few fat cells at all. Men who have this disorder can be focused on thinness, but they can also become obsessed with the idea of musculature, looking for ways in which to make their fat cells shrink so their muscles will seem to pop loose from their skin.

Diet isn’t the only way to restrict calories, as some people with eating disorders use laxatives or vomiting to ensure that they don’t put on weight.

People who purge like this might binge on fattening foods first in episodes that seem outside of their control. They eat and eat and eat, not even knowing what they’re putting into their bodies, and they feel so terrible when the episode is through that purging seems like a good option. People with these habits are showing signs of bulimia nervosa.

Purging and vomiting can be catastrophic, but some people just binge while not purging at all.

These people may be morbidly obese, as they’re taking in far more calories than their bodies might possibly need, but they might feel incapable of controlling what they eat, and how much they eat in one sitting. These symptoms are common in those who have a binge eating disorder.

These neat categories sometimes don’t apply to men. They might:

  • Restrict their caloric intake without losing enough body mass to qualify for anorexia
  • Restrict their intake by focusing only on foods that are “healthy,” without losing weight at all
  • Binge and purge only occasionally, rather than all the time
  • Flit between restricting calories and purging, never doing one behavior consistently

People like this might not qualify for a specific eating disorder, but their behavior is still quite damaging. These acts tend to fall under the category of “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” The NEDA suggests that this is the most common type of eating disorder that tends to afflict men.

Adding in Behaviors

While behaviors surrounding food and calories are common among those with eating disorders, teen boys with body image issues can sometimes engage in unhealthy acts involving exercise and fitness. These behaviors might also help a man to keep his weight in line, but they can also be intensely damaging to a growing body.

Teens who feel as though they’re fat or flabby might spend hours in the gym, working on weight machines and otherwise looking for ways in which to burn calories and reduce the size of fat cells. They might work out in the morning, running long before the family starts the day. They might skip classes at school in order to get in a secret weightlifting session. When evening arrives, they might work out in the family gym.

Since teens might worry that their behaviors will cause alarm, they might sign up for sports teams. They’ll have an excuse for their insistence on fitness and weight, and they’ll be surrounded by others who seem to feel the same way. In a study of the issue in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, researchers found that 52 percent of males who participated in a thinness-based sport like wrestling had symptoms of a subclinical eating disorder. Sports can be good for a teen boy, of course, but they can also be dangerous covers for eating disorders.

Dabbling in Drugs

Teen boys with eating disorders might also choose to take steroids in order to make their muscles pop and their fat tissues disappear. The drugs work as an enabling device for an existing problem, and they can augment the damage a boy might feel. These drugs tend to increase feelings of impulsivity, making a teen even more likely to do things that aren’t in line with his long-term health. They can also fill teens with feelings of rage and anger, making a sense of isolation even more extreme.

The use of steroids among adolescent boys is on the rise in some parts of the country, and eating disorders might be to blame. According to a survey done in Los Angeles, for example, one in 20 teen boys admitted to the use of steroids. They’d like to change their bodies quickly, and drugs seem to allow them to do just that. These aren’t the only drugs that teens with eating disorders might be tempted to try, however, and some of the other substances they choose could be even more deadly.

Eating disorders like bulimia and binge eating disorder have been associated with rapid intake of alcohol, according to a study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, and those who have an eating disorder tend to report more negative consequences of alcohol when compared to those who don’t have an eating disorder. Teen boys with eating disorders might guzzle alcohol in order to drown their shame about their eating habits, or taking in alcohol could be just part of another binge the person engages in on a regular basis.

Teens might also take in typical drugs of addiction, including prescription painkillers or marijuana, in the hopes of calming their nerves and forgetting about the urge to eat. These drugs can make teens feel better in the moment, but again, they can reduce a teen’s ability to control behavior, making disordered acts regarding food and calories all the more likely.

Teens might also lean on stimulant drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine to keep their hunger pangs at bay.

Hiding the Truth

Few male teenagers with eating disorders feel comfortable discussing the issue openly. They might mistakenly believe that only girls can develop unhealthy opinions regarding food, so their thoughts and feelings about their own bodies can seem shameful and worth hiding at all costs. Reading up on their issues online might not help either, as teen boys can become despondent when they discover that most articles regarding eating disorders target girls and women.

Boys can also use a variety of techniques to cover up the impact of an eating disorder on their bodies. Modern fashions for boys are baggy and large, for example, and this might allow a shrinking teen to hide the fact with the clothes he wears. Adolescent boys can also claim that nosy parents are somehow “perverted” for trying to gauge weight gain or loss, and the embarrassment a parent might feel at these barbs could keep future questioning sessions from taking place.

Risk Factors

If teens can hide their behaviors so effectively, and clam up when they’re approached, parents might need to become adept at understanding the risks, so they’ll know whether or not their son merits close monitoring for this problem. According to ANRED, risk factors for male eating disorders include:

  • Increased weight during childhood
  • A history of dieting
  • Jobs or sports that demand a thin body
  • Exposure to male models who are quite thin
  • Repeated viewings of movies or videogames showing male figures with popping musclesTeen boys who seem to link a perfect body with life’s rewards might also be at an enhanced risk of developing an eating disorder. These teens might say things like, “If I were thin, I could do it.” They might also blame their failures on weight or body shame. These thought patterns could quickly blossom into disordered eating.

    Finding the Right Help

    Teen boys with eating disorders and addictions certainly need help, but it can be hard for families to access meaningful assistance. Many programs are designed for adolescent girls, and the help they give might leave teen boys feeling yet more isolated and alone. They might already feel like misfits, and forcing them into a program for girls could make those feelings all the more intense.

    Thankfully, as more young men are coming forward with their concerns about body image, more programs are being developed that could help teens to heal. Researchers are studying the sorts of therapies that boys tend to enjoy, and counselors are amending their approaches to assist with the special needs of boys who have addictions.

    In our facility, for example, we provide clients with science-based therapies that have been proven effective in enhancing body image. Our private counseling sessions can allow adolescent boys to really discuss their concerns, while our group courses can help them to develop new skills. At Muir Wood, we even provide adventure therapies that can help teens with eating disorders to revel in what their bodies can do, not what their bodies look like to outsiders.

    Our program is made just for boys, so there’s no embarrassment or shame involved. Healing is what we provide. If you’d like to find out more, we invite you to download our parent’s information packet. We can even schedule a tour of our facility, if that would be helpful. Call us to find out more.