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Men, Boys Also Battle Eating Disorders

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Gorging on pizza and fast food is a rite of passage for most college students, but after years of struggling with eating disorders an 18-year-old Charlotte, N.C., freshman barely enjoys french fries.

This student is not the young, white female who doesn't think she's skinny enough. He's a young man who spent middle school and part of high school counting calories, throwing up six times a day and weighing himself just as often. Even today, he rarely eats fried foods.

"I just got to the point last year where I'd eat fries," he said. " (B)ut I can't eat them too often or I'll freak out."

Because he's recovering from anorexia nervosa and bulimia and still struggles with his body image, he asked to remain anonymous.

Twenty years ago, experts estimated that for every 10 to 15 women with anorexia or bulimia, there was one man. Today researchers believe it's one man in four for anorexia, and one in 8 to 11 for bulimia.

Men tend to develop eating disorders two years later than women, which makes it age 16 for anorexia and 20 for bulimia. Experts say the underlying psychological factors are the same for both sexes: low self-esteem, a need to be accepted, depression and an inability to cope with emotions or issues. And like women, there's societal pressure for men to possess a certain body type.

Typically, guys involved in weight-conscious activities such as wrestling, dancing or modeling are most susceptible to eating disorders. Therapists and dieticians are now treating more men who aren't involved in those types of activities. Just as girls are pressured to look like Britney Spears, magazine covers and TV commercials encourage guys to have L.L. Cool J's arms and 50 Cent's abs and chest.

"The media is fueling the sense of body dissatisfaction in the average person," said Charles Anderson, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who is researching gender differences in eating disorders. "The images of males and females that are in the media are sort of this ideal body image that's being portrayed."

Men tend to be reluctant to admit they have an eating disorder, but in the late '90s, Silverchair front man Daniel Johns publicly discussed his battle with anorexia. The band's 1999 single, "Ana's Song," is about his fight with the disorder.

It's not only male celebrities struggling with the illness. In Charlotte, therapists, dieticians and social workers are treating more boys. Ruth Hall, a licensed clinical social worker in Charlotte, says she's treated boys ages 10 and 11 whose obsessive-compulsive disorder manifests as an eating disorder. She's had fat-phobic boys who won't eat if they don't exercise.

"I've seen people just hopping and jumping in my waiting room," she said. "They don't feel like they have permission to eat unless they've exercised that day. It's so sad, so tragic."

It took a feeding tube for the 18-year-old Charlotte teen who now likes french fries to seriously confront his illness. Throughout elementary school, he ate to cope with being unpopular. He was 5 feet 2 inches, 182 pounds by fifth grade. In sixth grade, he stopped eating meat and ran about three miles a day. Then he stopped eating sweets, fried food and pizza.

In seventh grade, he discovered purging. By ninth grade, he was 6 feet 1 inch, 135 pounds. His school counselor recommended a therapist.

He went, but kept losing weight. His parents sent him to a Wisconsin hospital that specialized in treating men with eating disorders. He wouldn't stop running and purging. The hospital had to stick a feeding tube down his throat.

The tube made him realize he had a serious problem. He stayed in the hospital for four months. When he came back to Charlotte, he continued seeing a therapist and a dietician. He's had relapses and struggles with binge eating, but he no longer purges or skips meals.

There are support groups in Charlotte for alcoholics, drug addicts and even overeaters, but there are few places where a guy can go to deal with an eating disorder.

"I know I will never be totally cured. You never look at food the same way," he said. "I'm in a much better place. I eat three meals a day, actually more like two and a half. I have a distorted body image. It's always saying you're not skinny enough, you're not cute enough."

He now ignores that voice.


(c) 2003, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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