Eating disorders used to be described as a possible “culture-bound syndrome,” with roots in Western cultural values that contributed to the formation and development of this ailment, causing thousands of people to be crippled by distorted perceptions of themselves.
However more recently, since these values, such as beauty ideals, have spread to other cultural settings, more and more cases of eating disorders have been recorded around the world, including the UAE.
When we think about eating disorders, we generally associate this psychological health issue with women. We now know that women, especially teenagers, only represent a percentage of the people who are affected. The other sector of the population which previously was thought to be less at risk are men and they too can fall victim to this terrible disorder.
It is projected that roughly 17 per cent of eating disorder sufferers are men, however that figure would be higher if more men came forward with their problem. It is very complicated and tricky for men to reach out and ask for help because eating disorders are still considered a ‘women’s disease’.
They may not want to admit they are suffering from anorexia or bulimia for fears of being ridiculed. One of the main reasons being is that many people are still very much in the dark about the details of eating disorders and therefore assume that it mostly has something to do with dieting, just wanting to be thin and people who prefer spending hours on the treadmill rather than spending quality time with friends and family.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are certain situations and events that might increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. These risk factors may include:
Age: Although eating disorders can occur across a broad age range — from pre-adolescents to older adults — they are much more common during the teens and early 20s.
Family history: Eating disorders are significantly more likely to occur in people who have parents or siblings who have had an eating disorder.
Family influences: People who feel less secure in their families, whose parents and siblings may be overly critical, or whose families tease them about their appearance are at higher risk of eating disorders.
Emotional disorders: People with depression, childhood trauma, anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more likely to have an eating disorder.
Dieting: People who lose weight are often reinforced by positive comments from others and by their changing appearance. This may cause some people to take dieting too far, leading to an eating disorder.
Transitions: Whether it’s heading off to college, moving, landing a new job or a relationship breakup, change can bring emotional distress, which may increase your susceptibility to an eating disorder.
Sports, work and artistic activities: Athletes, actors and television personalities, dancers, and models are at higher risk of eating disorders. Eating disorders are particularly common among ballerinas, gymnasts, runners and wrestlers.
There are however some risk factors that are specific to men, such as being overweight as a child, being involved in sports that require thinness, cultural expectations, puberty or just after, intense stress, divorce, loss of a job, when men leave the home and professions such as modelling or acting.
Many years of investigation has found that in both genders, compulsive dieting may be one of the key triggers.
The treatment options are very similar to those for women including a combination of therapy and lifestyle alterations. The good news is that men can recover from eating disorders, but it is a long process. The bad news is that relapse is common, and impulses to restrict eating or over exercise can be lifelong issues to wrestle with.
Since eating disorders are not just about food and weight matters, more research needs to be done to understand the deeper contributing variables and to verify the predominance of this illness among men. Based upon this, health professionals can recognise the problem and develop male specific treatment in order to provide effective treatment for men.
Samineh I Shaheem is an author, an assistant professor of psychology, currently lecturing in Dubai, as well as a cross cultural consultant at HRI. She has appeared on numerous radio programmes and conferences and has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the United States of America, UK, Netherlands, and the United Arab Emirates