My son was almost twelve when he started going through puberty. He was very tall and thin and began making comments about how he hated being so small. He started lifting weights with his father which I thought was really endearing but, honestly, didn’t think would last.
However, to my surprise it did and seven years later going to the gym about four days a week has been something that has helped him and kept him incredibly grounded.
But, in between then and now, he has definitely had some disordered eating which I was able to pick up on since I suffered as a teenager too.
When I pointed it out to his dad, he caught himself saying, “I don’t think he has an eating problem! He just wants to be strong and healthy. Plus, he’s a guy and doesn’t that only affect girls?”
My son had read somewhere that in order to gain weight, he had to eat a certain amount of calories. So, he’d do that every single day. Now this is when it started to become scary for me. My son was so obsessed with hitting that number of calories that he’d track his food, then go over it several times a day to make sure he was eating enough.
His world started revolving around food and he’d make a huge deal about eating if we were going out for the day as a family. He’d also cancel plans with friends a lot because they weren’t eating the kind of food he wanted to eat (a diet high in protein and carbs), and they made comments about how much he ate.
He didn’t want their pizza or take-out Chinese food. He made his own meals which consisted of eggs, tuna, whole milk, steak, chicken, rice, pasta, and the like. Nothing could be fried, and he stopped eating sugar.
While this diet sounds pretty healthy, there is a difference between consistency and obsession — and my son was obsessed. The worst part was eating this much food every day was making him throw up. I’d tell him over and over that his body was rejecting the food because it was too much but he wouldn’t listen.
He got angry and was insistent on only eating large quantities of certain foods and it was so hard to watch him force himself to eat. It became a huge burden to him, something he admits now.
Disordered eating has many faces. It’s not just about starving yourself, or binging and purging. The Mayo Clinic reports, “Eating disorders are serious conditions related to persistent eating behaviors that negatively impact your health, your emotions and your ability to function in important areas of life.”
Leslie Heinberg, PhD, Vice Chair for Psychology, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, told The Cleveland Clinic,“One of the most common misconceptions about disordered eating is that it’s a young white woman’s disease. The truth is that disordered eating can affect any gender, race or age. In fact, men account for 25% of disordered eating cases.”
Eating disorders or disordered eating isn’t just something females struggle with — boys and men can also suffer from eating disorders. In fact, Healthline reports over 10 million men and boys are struggling in the US.
What we have to remember is that the images we see in the media, regardless of our age or gender, are the same images we all see and there are times when those perfect, tan, toned, bodies can trigger any one of us.
For my son, he wanted to gain muscle mass and be really big and muscular. For others, they want to be thin. And just as scary as the eating disorder itself, because a lot of boys and men are striving to be more “fit” or muscular, these symptoms are often overlooked.
Healthline reports this is because “it’s socially acceptable for boys to want to gain muscle and to spend a lot of time at the gym, parents and healthcare professionals are less likely to recognize when that behavior becomes unhealthy.”
It’s imperative to look for signs like your child distancing themself from friends because of food, becoming obsessed with certain things they won’t eat, or insisting on working out even when they are injured or sick. According to Healthline, these are all signs of eating disorders and should be taken as such.
Another factor in how eating disorders and body image is affecting our boys is through sports. They have a lot of pressure to win and perform, and some sports even require them to lose weight which can quickly become an obsession.
Capital Area Pediatrics suggests you try the following things if you suspect your son may be developing an eating disorder: Talk to them, make sure you do your research on eating disorders, don’t put yourself down or talk about your weight in front of them, and lastly, get them professional help.
“Your child’s primary care doctor may be able to recommend a mental health counselor with experience in eating disorders. The sooner you seek help for your child, the less likely their eating disorder is to become worse,” says Capital Area Pediatrics.
While some habits, like exercise and eating healthy, can be a great anchor for our kids, it’s important as parents to take note when it turns into an obsession and is affecting our kids’ lives.
Regardless of your child’s gender, it’s important to note that society and media can dictate how they feel about their body — and that eating disorders can affect anyone.