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Male eating disorders: Excessive workouts to blame?

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BINGEING, PURGING, and diet-supplement abuses are traditionally viewed as women’s-health issues. But recently, the Los Angeles Times reported that in Los Angeles county, young men are just as likely as women both to induce vomiting and abuse diet pills. This is part of a growing pool of evidence that eating disorders are affecting more men every year. Indeed, a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study shows that around 3 percent of teenage boys in Boston have induced vomiting, and over 8 percent have fasted to control their weight (compared to 4 percent and 15 percent among girls). But while parents and teachers are on alert for signs of eating disorders in girls, they often fail to notice similar signs in boys.

“We need to educate the public on what to look for, and break down stereotypes,” says Jerel Calzo, a specialist on male eating disorders affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. The motivations that lead to male eating disorders may be different than the ones that lead women to anorexia or bulimia. “It might not be just about body image,” Calzo says. “It could do with other things related to masculinity, such as strength.” Calzo suggests that some disorders may grow out of excessive workout routines.

Meanwhile, school programs to address eating disorders should take boys into account, too. That could mean more training for local school nurses; in the Boston Public Schools, for example, only nurses in schools with particularly severe eating disorder problems get special training, though other nurses can request it. Boston-area schools have long been alert to student-health issues, from providing better nutrition through breakfast programs to ridding vending machines of unhealthy snacks. They should show similar initiative in helping all students suffering from eating disorders.

For the record: An earlier version of this piece contained an incorrect affiliation for researcher Jerel Calzo.

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