Study Highlights Eating Disorder Differences Between Boys and Girls

Research has shown conclusively that teenage girls aren’t the only ones to experience eating disorders. Eating disorders affect men and women of all ages, and the myth that young women are the only people who might live with an eating disorder prevents many people from seeking treatment for their own disordered eating.

While both men and women can experience eating disorder, recent research suggests the disorders may behave differently between the genders.

According to a report published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, eating disorders are often linked with a mood disorder in women. However, the researchers couldn’t find a link between mood disorders and eating disorders. Additionally, the boys tended to develop different types of eating disorders which developed at a slightly younger age.

“These results indicate that there are indeed differences in the ways in which child and adolescent males and females present for eating disorder treatment,” said lead author Kathryn Kinasz of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at The University of Chicago.

For the study, the researchers evaluated 619 adolescents and teens between the ages of 6 to 18, whose symptoms qualified for an eating disorder diagnosis. Out of those 619 participants, 560 were female.

The study found that while anorexia nervosa accounted for a third of the eating disorders among female patients, rates for the condition were lower among boys (25 percent). Rates for bulimia were also lower among the male participants, with 27 percent of girls experiencing the disorder compared to 12 percent of boys.

Instead, the majority of boys were diagnosed with an eating disorder within the “other category” which included binge-eating disorder.

The researchers also found differences in related mental health and behavior. Males overall showed lower eating disorder psychopathology and lower restraint, eating concern, shape concern, and weight concern. In comparison, females frequently also had a mood or anxiety disorder in addition to their eating disorder.

“It is important to remember that our findings [were in patients seeking] eating disorder treatment rather than the general population,” she said. “Thus, the earlier age of onset may be more likely an issue of when and how males’ eating disorders are being identified. We are beginning to understand that males do not hold the same body image ideals as females,” she said. “This idea of desiring a thin physique may belong more strictly to females while their male counterparts desire a more ‘muscular physique.’”

Some behaviors tended to change over time within the genders. For example, purging rates for younger boys tended to be lower than rates for females, but the rate for older boys was higher.

“Increased focus on time at the gym should be a warning sign, particularly when this begins to take precedent over other activities that the child previously enjoyed,” Kinasz said. “Losing weight at a very rapid pace should also be a red flag.”

“Similar to females, if a boy begins to focus on his appearance and strictly cutting out major food groups like carbohydrates or dairy, parents or doctors should begin to watch that such dieting does not spiral out of his control,” she said.

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