EAST LANSING, Mich. — When most people think of eating disorders, stick-thin women with their ribs showing under their skin is the image that comes to mind.
Of the 8 million people in the U.S. who are affected by eating disorders each year, a majority of those won’t fit that mold. Males as well as females who don’t appear emaciated are often times overlooked for eating disorders.
“Although awareness is increasing regarding that fact that boys and men also suffer from eating disorders, males are often reluctant to seek help due to the assumption that eating disorders are a ‘girl’s disease,’” said Karen Giles-Smith, registered dietitian nutritionist. “Since most of the media portrayals and coverage about eating disorders have featured young, white, females with anorexia nervosa, it’s not surprising that misconceptions exist.”
Giles-Smith offers medical nutrition therapy for people who are struggling with an unhealthy relationship with food and eating in East Lansing, Michigan at her private practice, At Ease with Eating, LLC.
Gabe Costanzo suffered from bulimia while attending Alma college, which went on for close to two years. Bulimia entails episodes of binge eating followed by behaviors to rid the body of the food that was consumed, such as vomiting, abuse of laxatives or even excessive exercise.
“I was starving myself. Then I would realize that I was ruining my body and mind and I would either over exercise until I got sick or I would make myself sick,” said Costanzo.
And for what? He says he thinks it was for the stereotype that men should have the nice abs, a big chest, and solid arms. That’s what society says is the ideal man.
“Most people never acknowledge them for men,” Costanzo said, “but it is very real and awareness for both men and women should be equal.”
Giles-Smith says that eating disorders in males often present differently. Instead of focusing primarily on becoming thin, males with eating disorders focus on muscularity and a low percentage of body fat.
“In both females and males, eating disorders may not be identified in those who want to be ‘more fit’ or ‘healthier’ and may have lost a significant amount of weight,” said Giles-Smith. “Parents, doctors and friends may praise their efforts to get fit and healthy and the resulting weight loss, and overlook the signs and symptoms of eating disorders such as preoccupation with food and body size/shape/weight and excessive exercise.”
Candice Olson, 29, used to starve herself as a teenager but was never medically diagnosed.
“Oftentimes, people don’t tend to pay as much attention to someone who is overweight that starts cutting back on how much they eat or an extreme diet,” Olson said.
People want to sympathize, but most will never understand, Olson said. She said she never sought professional help due to feeling embarrassed. Society puts pressure on women to look a certain way, but Olson says she has finally found happiness through self love and body acceptance.
“For eating disorder sufferers like myself, it feels so incredibly invalidating that many people wouldn’t know you have a restrictive eating disorder just from looking at you,” says Sarah Skelton, who at 18 is recovering from a restrictive eating disorder. “You don’t look like you’re about to fall over, so you ‘obviously aren’t sick.’”
Giles-Smith explained that restrictive eating disorders entail restricting oral intake, whether it be eating or drinking less in order to alter your body weight or size.
“You start telling yourself that you aren’t sick and you don’t have a problem because your BMI is in the healthy range,” said Skelton.
Although many don’t seek professional help for their eating disorders due to these misconceptions, getting the proper help is extremely important.
“If an eating disorder is suspected, get help as soon as possible,” said Giles-Smith. “Recovery often takes several years — draw on your values, personal strengths, and goals for the future, lean on your support system, and never give up. Full recovery is possible.”