Eating Disorders on the Rise Among Men and Boys in the UK

A recent study1carried out by the University of London’s Institute for Child Health has revealed that eating disorders among males has significantly increased. The research, led by Dr. Nadia Micali, was based on data obtained from 7,082 adolescents aged 13 from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. While the statistics obtained on girls and young women were similar to those gleaned from past studies, the rise in the number of male subjects affected by eating disorders was significant. The main findings of the study included:

  • One in every three girls and one in five boys were worried or upset about body shape/weight.
  • One in four girls and one in seven boys had attempted to control their food intake through restrictive means (including fasting, skipping meals and discarding food) in the three months previous to the study.
  • Over one in four girls and a little less than one in four boys had engaged in exercise in order to lose weight.
  • The habit of bingeing was engaged in by girls (4.6 per cent) and boys (5 per cent) to an almost equal extent.
  • The areas with the most significant increases include eating disorders in girls/women aged 15 to 19 and in boys aged 10 to 14.

The study is particularly significant for various reasons; it is the first of its kind outside the USA, and is a large-scale study based on data obtained from 2000 to 2009. Additionally, many of the new cases involved Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) – those suffering from EDNOS display some (but not all) of the symptoms associated with anorexia nervosa or bulimia. For instance, a female patient may reveal physical signs of starvation yet still have her menstrual period. One newly described eating disorder is called binge eating disorder (BED); it differs from bulimia nervosa in that while the latter is characterised by episodes of binge eating followed by purging, those suffering from BED generally do not resort to purging; instead, they encounter insatiable cravings, which they satisfy in a secretive manner, often encountering feelings of extreme shame after an episode of bingeing.

The fact that more boys and men are suffering from eating disorders is important in so far as due diagnosis and treatment are concerned. For one, the statistics may be conservative, since scientists have found that men often fail to seek diagnosis and treatment for this condition. One important study2, published in the journal, BMJ Open this month, found that men aged 16 to 25 often approach health professionals when their eating disorder behaviours are already deeply entrenched, for two reasons: firstly, many view eating disorders as a predominantly female problem, thus failing to recognise their behaviour as symptomatic of eating disorders; secondly, there is a lack of gender-specific information and resources for men. The findings are vital because the more deeply entrenched these behaviours are, the more difficult it can be to overcome them. The males interviewed for the study also noted that preconceived beliefs on the gender-specific nature of eating disorders affect reactions of health professionals, family and friends, who may fail to realise there is a problem until the later stages. The matter can be further confused by the fact that eating disorders frequently co-exist with other psychiatric and personality disorders, including alcoholism3 and drug abuse4, sothat behavioural and physical changes can often be attributed to the wrong cause.

Studies point to a need for greater awareness among parents and families of the extent to which eating disorders can affect males, especially since scientists are finding more cases of children displaying signs of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and EDNOS. According to a study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry5, eating disorders affect around three in every 100,000 children under the age of 13, with 82 per cent of cases being accounted for by girls, and 18 per cent by boys. In this report, 37 per cent of children with eating disorders were diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, and 43 per cent with EDNOS6 (e.g. they showed symptoms of suffering from eating disorders but they were not underweight). Meanwhile, only one per cent of children suffered from bulimia nervosa or BED, and the remaining 19 per cent displayed non-categorised behaviour, including avoiding food or being underweight, yet not being preoccupied with their weight or body shape.

Some important symptoms to watch out for in males include:

  • Excessive exercising7
  • An obsession with specific parts of the body and sculpting the body through exercise and/or dieting
  • Suffering from a distorted body image
  • Excessive reliance on food supplements8, which are unnecessary when a wholesome diet is consumed.
  • Narcissism: An obsession with one’s physical perfection and an intolerance of mistakes.
  • An intense fear of gaining weight.
  • In some cases, the abuse of laxatives and supplements.
  • Purging

If the presence of an eating disorder is diagnosed, it is important to comprehend that treatment can be a long and complex process involving assistance from a team that will usually include nutritionists, psychologists and doctors. As Dr. Oz notes,9 “Both nutritional restoration and emotional treatment are essential to achieving long-term recovery.”


1 Nadia Micali, George Ploubidis, Bianca De Stavola,, Frequency and Patterns of Eating Disorder Symptoms in Early Adolescence, Journal of Adolescent Health, December 2013.
2 Ulla Räisanen and Kate Hunt, The role of gendered constructions of eating disorders in delayed help-seeking in men: a qualitative interview study, BMJ Open, April, 2014.
3 Carlos M. Grilo, Rajita Sinha and Stephanie S. O’Malley, Eating Disorders and Alcohol Use Disorders, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, accessed April, 2014.
4 Risking your Life: Designer Drugs and Counterfeit Medicines,, accessed April, 2014.
5 Dasha E. Nicholls, Richard Lynn, Russell M. Viner, Childhood eating disorders: British national surveillance study, The British Journal of Psychiatry, 2011.
6 Christopher G. Fairbum, Kristin Bohn, Eating disorder NOS (EDNOS): an example of the troublesome “not otherwise specified (NOS) category in DSM-IV”, Behaviour Research and Therapy, April, 2005.
7 Eva Peñas-Lledó, Francisco J Vaz Leal, Glenn Waller, Excessive exercise in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: relation to eating characteristics and general psychopathology, International Journal of Eating Disorders, June, 2002.
8 “Nutritional Support for Women” , WholeFoods, accessed April, 2014.
9 “Hope for Eating Disorder Victims,”, accessed April, 2014.