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

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

For years he cycled through addictions to drugs, alcohol, exercise or steroids before facing his eating disorder. Weiss said a breakthrough moment came when he was in a meeting with 20 other men in a drug abuse treatment facility and confessed his struggles with food.

"I've never been so scared in my life, to be honest with you," he said.

To his surprise, other men in the group admitted to similar struggles.

At that point, Weiss was willing to do anything to recover.

"I was so sick of being sick," he said.

Weiss began attending group meetings specifically for eating disorders — the only man among 15 women.

There weren't many other resources for Weiss, who said most of his recovery had to be done on his own or one-on-one.

Getting to the root of his addictions meant getting to the root of his eating disorder.

From his own experience and in his work as a therapist, Weiss said there are parallels between eating disorders and other addictions.

"The only difference is we need food and we don't need drugs," he said.

Schaat said the brain stimulus is similar with eating disorders and drugs.

"There is a degree of euphoria, a certain kind of reward … that happens when they act out on the behavior," he said, adding that the release of dopamine and endorphins give an incentive for the behavior to continue.

A variety of triggers

The root cause for eating disorders is different for everyone, Spigarelli said.

"Sometimes by that's caused by stress. Sometimes that's caused by being overweight and being teased. Sometimes it's connected to fear of puberty and growing up and being an adult," he said. "In some cases, it's probably related to sexual abuse."

Rising obesity levels can be triggers as well, Spigarelli said. With obesity on the rise, people are worried about gaining weight, and "that pressure for people who are susceptible to eating disorders can bring out an eating disorder," he said.

People tend to use weight as an indication of health, Spigarelli said, and "as a society, we disproportionately focus on weight gain, not unhealthy weight loss."

"In reality, it's bad to not be at a healthy weight,” he said.

The criteria to diagnose someone with an eating disorder are essentially the same between men and women, Spigarelli said.

A person with normal weight who thinks they’re fat, someone who does not appear to have control over their eating, people who engage in extreme diets, or someone at a normal weight who takes weight loss supplements could be exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, he said.

Spigarelli said most of his clients spend 15 to 16 of their waking hours thinking about food or exercise.

"That really shocks the people that they're with because no one understands that it's an every waking moment concept," he said.

Those with eating disorders also tend to be socially isolated, because it's difficult to avoid drawing attention to their eating behavior.

“They get away for a while by saying, ‘Oh, I ate right before I came,’ or ‘I have a blood test in the morning, and I have to be fasting for it,’ or something," Spigarelli said. "But you can only use those excuses so many times before people catch on.”

It is not something someone can stop on their own, he said, although that is often what misguided but well-intentioned loved ones do.

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