When we think about eating difficulties of any kind, whether it’s a complicated relationship with food or a diagnosed eating disorder, we might often make assumptions that they only affect girls and women. But that’s just not the case.

Did you know?

It is estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from diagnosed eating disorders. But the statistics are likely to be a real underestimate, because they don’t take into account all those people who have not sought help or are facing these difficulties alone – as well as all those people who might not have a diagnosed disorder but may have a difficult or complicated relationship with food.

It is thought that around a quarter of all sufferers of eating disorders are male, although that number might be much higher.

Signs you might have an eating difficulty

  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain due to food habits
  • A preoccupation with your body (wanting to be a certain weight, or to be more muscly for example)
  • A preoccupation with food or exercise
  • Being self conscious about eating in front of others
  • No longer enjoying social eating
  • Making yourself sick after eating

How can eating difficulties affect people?

Everybody is different, but here are some examples of the ways eating difficulties of any kind can affect individuals:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Fatigue
  • Physical health problems
  • Intense emotions, such as anger or sadness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • A change in appearance
  • Withdrawing from friends/family

An issue that can affect anybody

Lancashire and England ex-cricketer Andrew (Freddie) Flintoff recently talked about his 20-year struggle with an eating disorder in his documentary ‘My Battle with Bulimia’. His story was refreshingly honest, yet highlighted some of what we already know about boys and men. That talking about problems and reaching out for support can be so difficult.

At 42, Flintoff had never spoken to a professional about his relationship with food, yet privately struggled for half his life. He candidly discussed how he struggled to even say the word ‘bulimia’, let alone explore what it meant for him.

Flintoff grew up believing the stereotype that bulimia ‘doesn’t affect’ people from his type of background – people who are viewed as ‘tough’.

But just how do the stereotypes of how men ‘should’ feel, think, and behave affect those who are truly struggling?

Historically, men are stereotypically pressured to be seen as ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’. And while eating difficulties are not about being weak in any way, many men just like Andrew Flintoff see it as such, and don’t reach out for help or identify themselves as having an issue.

Flintoff – more commonly known as ‘Freddie’ – he saw himself with two very different personas. Freddie – the confident sportsman. And then there was Andrew, with real life worries and vulnerabilities that the rest of the world didn’t see. It was brave and inspiring to see that Andrew was very much the leading man in the documentary, and that his public persona, Freddie, was taking a backseat.

Does Andrew’s honest analogy tell us something about how a lot of men portray themselves?

Andrew’s story is not unusual, and there are currently so many men suffering in silence and hiding their true, amazing, and vulnerable selves from the rest of the world.

Sharing a male perspective

We spoke to three men (D, G and A), who shared some of their own story…

“I often felt like a fraud, like an imposter, and [I] used to think, I can’t possibly have an eating disorder, other people are in worse positions. Luckily, I did eventually seek support and was supported by a specialist eating disorders clinic. It was crucial, and it was amazing. That only finished a year ago, and I’ve been in therapy for the last year now, too, which I wasn’t ready for until after my ED-specific support. I needed to be healthier [and] safer, and change my behaviour, before I was in a place where I could even start to unpick or understand more in therapy.” ~ D

“I have had an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise for a long time. When things go wrong, I turn to food. I once got as far as researching a local overeaters support group but very quickly talked myself out of making contact at all, because I felt like a fraud. Like my issue wasn’t big enough in some way. It’s something I continue to manage myself.” ~ G

“When I was at school, as my peers grew, I knew something was not right. How could I go from the tallest in my year to the smallest, not growing for nearly four years? As it turned out, I had no testosterone. We hear often about women losing their periods in periods of malnutrition, and that is something that is widely asked as part of eating disorder screening; however, there is very little on malnutrition and over-exercising and its effects on the hormonal systems of [men]. Men do get eating disorders too. [Eating disorders] do not discriminate, and no one is immune. I have never been able to get any formal treatment. I know this is not solely because I am a man, but I believe that an ingrained stigma prevents many men even asking for help, and [that] means they are less likely to receive the support they need.” ~ A

Getting help

If you do feel like your relationship with food is becoming an issue and impacting your life, reaching out for support can be a useful first step.

Going to your GP can help you find out what support is on offer. If this feels like a daunting step, or you feel like talking about things may be difficult, writing down some of your issues might be helpful. It can also be useful to remember that lots of men take this step, so you are not alone.

Specialist services have a lot of great support and knowledge, but sometimes getting that support swiftly can be tricky. Sometimes some professionals you talk to may not have all the answers or be aware of all of the signs, so it’s important to be able to share as much as possible and persevere to get the support you deserve.

BEAT, the UK’s eating disorder charity, have created this helpful leaflet for GPs with the goal to get you the right support quickly. You can take it to your appointment with you when you seek support. BEAT also has a wealth of information and support, so take a look here if you’d like to find out more.

By Gemma Campbell