For decades, eating disorders were thought to afflict mostly, if not exclusively, women and girls. In fact, until 2013, the loss of menstruation had long been considered an official symptom of anorexia nervosa.
Over the last decade, however, health experts have increasingly recognized that boys and men also suffer from eating disorders, and they have gained a better understanding of how differently the illness presents in that group. A small but growing body of scientists and physicians have dedicated themselves to identifying the problem, assessing its scope and developing treatments.
Recently, two of these experts spoke to The New York Times about how the disease is affecting adolescent boys, what symptoms and behaviors parents should look for, and which treatments to consider. Dr. Jason Nagata is a pediatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in eating disorders; he is senior editor of the Journal of Eating Disorders and editor of the book “Eating Disorders in Boys and Men.” Dr. Sarah Smith is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Toronto who specializes in eating disorders; she was the lead author on a study published in JAMA Open Network in December that showed sharp increases in the rates of hospitalizations for boys with eating disorders.
The conversation was condensed and edited for clarity.
The medical and scientific understanding of eating disorders is changing and expanding. What happened?
Dr. Smith: Historically, eating disorders have been conceptualized mostly as anorexia, which has been portrayed as an illness of adolescent females who want to lose weight for aesthetic reasons.
Dr. Nagata: There’s increasing recognition, particularly in the last decade or so, that some people with body image dissatisfaction are not trying to lose weight at all. Some men and boys are trying to become large and muscular. In fact, one-third of teenage boys across the United States report that they’re trying to bulk up and get more muscular. And a subset of those may develop eating disorders or muscle dysmorphia that can lead to significant psychological distress and physical health complications.
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