Study Suggests Eating Disorders More Common Than Thought Among Teen Males

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health published a “striking” study in JAMA Pediatrics that suggests that young males may be more susceptible to eating disorders than is commonly perceived.

Among the many findings of the study, researchers showed that 17.9 percent of teenage males were “extremely concerned” about their bodies.

“Much of what we know about is a presentation of eating disorders among young women,” said Kendrin R. Sonneville, an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and second author of the study. “We’re sort of embarking on an area that is understudied.”

As a part of a larger study called ‘Growing Up Today,’ the paper provided more information about the long-term effects of various health factors such as diet, exercise, alcohol use, and body image. In the context of the larger study, which has spanned nearly two decades and included survey information from thousands of children and adolescents, this HSPH study focuses exclusively on young males.

Alison Field, associate professor of pediatrics and co-author of the study, suggested that the findings showed that males with eating disorders were most similar to females who engaged in purging but did not binge-eat. Like these women, the men tended to be more likely than their peers to use drugs and to drink.

“These boys were about two times as likely to start binge drinking frequently and start using drugs other than marijuana,” Field said.

The survey also found that eight percent of the males surveyed were concerned with muscularity and used steroids, growth hormones, or other products that may be unhealthy.

“That was really striking to us, that the numbers were that high,” Field said.

Sonneville says that solving the problem of distorted body images amongst males is about changing perceptions.

“This is a much bigger problem than the medical community is aware of,” Sonneville said. “The fact of the matter is that it affects boys and girls from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and of all different socioeconomic groups and of all ages.”

Field also stressed the importance of parents and doctors in screening the mentalities of young people.

“Anybody who is extremely concerned with their weight …or their perception of their appearance and is willing to use whatever behaviors or means it takes to achieve that physique—that’s equally unhealthy for males and females.”

The researchers suggested that the first step in addressing the issue is to identify the problem.

“We live in a society, unfortunately, that puts way too much emphasis on appearance,” Field said. “You need to really talk to them and figure out why is it that they think changing their weight is going to change everything in their life.”

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