Challenges for College Men Susceptible to an Eating Disorder

Though the common stereotype of an eating disorder sufferer depicts a young or adolescent female, we understand that these mental illnesses have a widespread impact on all people, irrespective of gender, race, or ethnicity.

The college years denote a time of change and transformation, a period that is characterized by a myriad of emotions as young adults bloom in their independence. Males are equally vulnerable as their female counterparts to encounter struggles during this transitional time in their lives. For men who may have other risk factors that increase susceptibility to an eating disorder, the transition to college can trigger the development of these mental illnesses, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder.

Young Men Face Body Image Issues As Well, And It’s Rising

Young men may encounter a myriad of issues pertaining to their weight and body image while in college. While low self-esteem and body image concerns may be something that is commonly thought to be an issue women deal with, studies have shown this idea to be false.

Large scale surveys discovered that body image concerns among males have increased dramatically over the past three decades, with approximately 43% of men reporting dissatisfaction with their bodies [1].

These rates are comparable to women who also struggle with body dissatisfaction and reveal the similar challenges that men face concerning body image. Many men dealing with negative body image or an eating disorder may be more reluctant to come forward and ask for help, often because these are stereotyped as “women’s issues.” Some men may fear that admitting these struggles will cause them to appear weak, vulnerable, or frail.

The Extra Stigma of Being a Male With an Eating Disorder

8258417759_31ace40e82_zWhat are some of the other unique challenges that men in college may be susceptible to? For starters, males suffering from body image issues and eating disorders have a tremendous stigma to overcome.

The National Institute of Mental Health reported that approximately one million males struggle with eating disorders nationwide, yet this is thought to be an underestimate [2]. With the limited availability of gender specific treatment management and minimal resources for males who are struggling with eating disorders, men continue to be underdiagnosed and undertreated.

How College Life Can Affect Men With Poor Body Image

College life and culture on campus may also evoke challenges for men who are susceptible to developing an eating disorder. Here are some of the aspects of college that can present with difficult circumstances for the male college student with or in recovery from an eating disorder:

  • Involvement with high-risk athletic groups: Student athletes, who participate in particular sports that emphasize weight and/or stature, may have increased risk of developing an eating disorder. This includes sports such as gymnastics, wrestling, jockeys, body builders, and long-distance runners.Additionally, athletic competition at the collegiate level can create further physical and psychological pressures to the male student, which may put them at increased risk for developing weight related or eating issues.
  • Sexual Orientation and Identity: College may be a time in which young men experience confusion in regards to their sexual orientation. As a result, they may find solace in weight loss as a product of restricted eating.Some males may elude the matter of addressing potential conflicts regarding sexual orientation with severe weight loss, which can inhibit libido all together [2]. While being homosexual is not in itself predictive of males developing an eating disorder, it can be an indication for a male to be more at risk of developing a disorder [3].
  • Muscle dysmorphia and muscularity ideals: Muscle dysmorphia, or the obsession about being inadequately muscular, is a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder that commonly affects male bodybuilders. With an overemphasis on male muscularity through media exposure, young men may feel inclined to be both lean and muscular to be socially acceptable.Men who struggle with these body image concerns may turn towards steroid or hormone use, which can increase risk for developing disordered eating habits [4].
  • Comorbid Chemical Dependency: Research has shown that substance abuse frequently co-develops with eating disorders, as these psychiatric disorders can be co-morbid. Studies have revealed that an estimated 57% of males with binge eating disorder struggle with substance abuse issues compared to 28% of females with binge eating disorder [5].While greater attention may be garnered toward substance abuse issues on college campuses, the use of drugs or alcohol could be indicative of the presence of food and body issues as well. It may be more socially acceptable to struggle with substance abuse, when in fact; minimal attention is given to eating disorder issues that may also exist.A male student who is dealing with a substance abuse disorder may be more likely to also have an eating disorder and vice versa. Addiction and substance abuse programs may be helpful in identifying co-occurring eating disorders by screening for certain behaviors when assessing one’s addiction.

Creating Greater Awareness And Reducing Stigma

The challenges that men may face during their college careers could increase their susceptibility to developing an eating disorder. Being aware of the unique struggles that men may encounter is an important aspect of creating greater awareness of these issues and developing prevention strategies.

Closeup of a College Man In GlassesThe weight and body image concerns that male students will have are strikingly different from women and should be approached in a manner that addresses the distinct needs that men have. Greater understanding of these differences can be a helpful component of treatment measures for males, as well as breaking the stigmas that often surround these concerns.

If you are a male student on a college campus who is dealing with an eating disorder, you may feel isolated and alone in your struggle. You may be facing significant challenges in seeking out help, support, and recovery, and it is important to know that you are not alone in this journey. Take a step toward freedom by talking with someone you love and asking for help and support.

Connecting with treatment sooner rather than later can significantly improve your chances of recovering and give you the resources you need to truly thrive, in college and in life.

Jacquelyn EkernAbout the authors: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC founded Eating Disorder Hope in 2005, driven by a profound desire to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. This passion resulted from her battle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder. As president, Jacquelyn manages Ekern Enterprises, Inc. and the Eating Disorder Hope website. In addition, she is a fully licensed therapist with a closed private counseling practice specializing in the treatment of eating disorders.

Jacquelyn has a Bachelor of Science in Human Services degree from The University of Phoenix and a Masters degree in Counseling/Psychology, from Capella University. She has extensive experience in the eating disorder field including advanced education in psychology, participation and contributions to additional eating disorder groups, symposiums, and professional associations. She is a member of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), Academy of Eating Disorders (AED), the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC) and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (iaedp).

Jacquelyn enjoys art, working out, walking her golden retriever “Cowgirl”, reading, painting and time with family.
Although Eating Disorder Hope was founded by Jacquelyn Ekern, this organization would not be possible without support from our generous sponsors.

Crystal Headshot 2Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC is a Contributing Writer for Eating Disorder Hope.

Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing,

As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH and nutrition private practice.


[1]: The National Eating Disorder Association.  “Statistics on Males and Eating Disorders.”
[2]: Strother, Eric; Lemberg, Raymond; Stanford, Stevie Chariese; Turberville, Dayton.  Eating disorders in men: Underdiagnosed, Undertreated, and Misunderstood.  Eat Disord. Oct 2012; 20(5): 346-355.
[3]: Morgan J. The invisible man: A self-help guide for men with eating disorders, compulsive exercise, and bigorexia. New York, NY: Routledge; 2008.
[4]: Blouin AG, Goldfield GS. Body image and steroid use in male bodybuilders. Int J Eat Disord. 1995 Sep; 18(2):159-65.
[5]: Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with eating disorders (revision). American Psychiatric Association Work Group on Eating Disorders. Am J Psychiatry. 2000 Jan; 157(1 Suppl):1-39.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on August 16, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 16, 2017.
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