Male eating disorders: 'Treatment works and people get their lives back'

Published: Saturday, Oct. 26 2013 3:15 p.m. MDT

Josh Novak walks at the BYU campus in Provo, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. He has overcome an eating disorder and is now working toward his Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Josh Novak didn’t mean to develop an eating disorder.

At 17, he discovered weightlifting in his search for an outlet to help him cope with low self-esteem and recurring depression.

He eventually began eating past the point of feeling full, then hitting up the gym for five hours or running 15 to 20 miles to rid himself of extra calories. For days he would restrict his eating until his starving body would propel him into binge eating and renew the cycle. This behavior was accompanied by guilt, Novak said.

"It took a little bit to be like, ‘Oh, boy. This is something that, you know, is a huge struggle, and how do I overcome it?’”

An estimated 10 million men nationwide suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. The association estimates that one out of every 10 people with an eating disorder, who come to the attention of a mental health professional, is a man.

In Utah, an estimated 30,126 men had eating disorders in 2007, according to data from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.

"We're seeing more eating disorders with each passing year. So we know that the numbers are increasing," said Michael Spigarelli, division chief for adolescent medicine in the department of pediatrics at the University of Utah.

Spigarelli said he's not sure whether the increase is in proportion to the population growth, and he sees the numbers as more of an estimate.

"There is no good study that shows what those numbers are," he said.

Tracey Cornella-Carlson, an adolescent and adult psychiatrist and medical director at Wisconsin-based Rogers Memorial Hospital, said people now feel “comfortable coming forward” because teachers, parents, coaches and young people are better educated about eating disorders.

“They’re kind of coming out of the woodwork, so to speak. I don’t think the incidence or prevalence is any different. I think that it’s just the acceptance factor,” she said.

'A measure of shame'

The numbers are underreported for a variety of reasons, health officials said.

Often those with eating disorders will seek help for secondary problems, such as a sore throat or high blood pressure, but not for the disorder itself, Spigarelli said.

The individual may receive treatment from a primary care physician or may fail to report their struggle because of the negative stigma attached to what some see as a woman's disease.

"I think there's an added measure of shame in men," said Timonty Schaat, a specialist in addictions and substance dependency at Lone Peak Family Medicine in Draper.

Michael Weiss said he felt this firsthand. An overweight child, his parents wanted to put him on a diet at 7. He grew up in what he described as a dysfunctional home and began eating as a way to soothe his emotional pain.

"The first thing I learned to cope with was food," Weiss said.

When he was about 12, Weiss resorted to throwing up in an attempt to control his weight gain. It did not help him lose weight, he said.

The behavior led to $10,000 in dental repairs, problems with his heart, and a perpetual dissatisfaction with himself that bled over into rocky personal relationships.

"I was just never really happy with myself at all," Weiss said.

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