A hungry college girl eats six slices of pizza at a party, all washed down with a huge cup of pop. Her girlfriends glance at her with marked disgust as they nibble on their food. Nearby but unnoticed, one of their male friends consumes an entire pizza by himself as well as a large bowl of ice cream and a bag of chips. Why the double standard?
The world of weight, food and portion-control is regarded mostly as a female problem, and eating disorders seem to be firmly centered on the female sex. Part of the reason is that our culture heavily promotes the ideal of a skinny — even underweight — woman. It is more socially acceptable to be overweight as a male, and also more socially acceptable for a man to eat a lot. For that reason, many male binge eaters don't get much notice. Some men who need help in overcoming bulimia (or anorexia) feel isolated because most books and counselors only deal with women facing these issues and don’t look at the issue from a male perspective.
Yet, men — like women — can turn to food for comfort, seek to control their weight as a way to control their world, and need to deal with the emotional and physical consequences of eating disorders. Yet, men who recognize that they eat too much don’t often recognize the connection between emotional distress and eating.
Stress, perfection and eating
Zayn Malik, a 23-year-old former One Direction member, revealed in his new memoir, "Zayn," that he was suffering from an eating disorder while performing with the band. "It wasn't as though I had any concerns about my weight or anything like that. I'd just go for days — sometimes two or three days straight — without eating anything at all" because of their hectic, stressful schedule, he wrote. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, he clarified that he was never diagnosed with an eating disorder and, now that he's "a bit older and a bit more wiser," is better at managing his meals.
Still, it has made me realize the responsibility I have as a parent to help my children foster a healthy relationship with food. Right now we have two girls, but I want the same lessons to be true for any sons we could have in the future. Boys don't just have problems with bulimia; anorexia is an issue, too.
The authors of boyanorexia.com and the book, "Boys Get Anorexia Too," explain: "There are an increasing number of males affected by both anorexia and bulimia. Often there is a link between male eating disorders and athletic prowess, and the quest for physical perfection can result in damaging behaviors associated with diet, supplements and exercise."
While there is no one reason for male or female eating disorders, I think that we don't always realize the pressures some men or even young boys face that could make them susceptible. One young man died while doing his nightly 1,000 sit-ups. He weighed 78 pounds and had been anorexic for eight years. His journey started not with a desire to be skinny, but rather a desire to be muscular and strong.
Dr. Jennifer Hagman, who runs the eating disorder program at the Children's Hospital Colorado, had this to say, "The emphasis in our culture about eating healthier is no doubt the biggest factor. In school they're telling them to limit the fat in their diet. I hear from many kids in the program that it was after a health class that they started to limit their diets."
Stop the negativity
That has been one of my concerns with the war on childhood obesity. Parents and children are being told about the evils of being overweight, and it is such a negative viewpoint. Americans also, on average, don’t know how to enjoy food.
Binge eaters aren't savoring their food any more than the person on a diet who feels guilty for any stray calorie. Food should be enjoyed in a healthy way. This is coming from someone who eats a traditional diet — including butter and red meat — but I also am concerned that children feel guilty about eating or drinking historically common foods that have been vilified. Their growing bodies may crave needed fat and protein, but certain health trends could make them feel guilty for eating those foods.
I remember the butter phobia among female friends in high school. We were eating a meal together, and one girl grabbed some butter for her roll; the other girls where horrified and told her it would make her "fat."
With this type of prevalent attitude, are we really surprised that eating disorders are so common? As someone who often talks about healthy eating, I want to be careful that I don't add to the paranoia of our times. I like to think that my life is more about the delicious beautiful foods I eat — like grass-fed pot roast with root vegetables, pastured chicken, whole-grain pancakes, glorious salads and satisfying soups. Sure, we limit sugar consumption, we don't eat out a whole lot, and there are many inferior foods on our "no" list. But we also don't really feel like we are missing out and we always enjoy our food as a family.
I want my daughters to love good food, to love having healthy bodies, and to grow strong. If we have son(s) in the future, I want the same for them. I know they won't be immune to the many influences around them, but I hope that at least at home we can model and encourage a healthy attitude towards food.
How do you seek to personally have a healthy attitude towards food? How do you try to help your children have a well-balanced perspective on health and food?
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in August 2012.