October 2, 2009

THAT'S MEN: The growing clamour about obesity is doing its bit to increase eating disorders among young males, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN 

ARE EATING disorders among men and boys on the increase? The answer is that we don’t know, but it seems likely.

Stress is a factor behind disordered eating and in the current recession, stress levels are increasing in those families hit by unemployment or just fearful about being able to pay the bills.

I suspect also that the growing clamour about obesity is doing its bit to increase eating disorders among young males susceptible to fears about how they look.

Eating disorders are usually seen as a female issue, but it is estimated that males may account for between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of those suffering from the condition. Accurate figures are impossible to get because eating disorders are so often hidden.

Eating disorders can include anorexia or bulimia or a mixture of the two (binge eating followed by binge dieting, for instance). Of those who engage in binge eating about 50 per cent are men, according to the Bodywhys support group (www.bodywhys.ie).

A whole range of issues can contribute to the development of eating disorders. Extreme dieting can appeal to people seeking control over relatively chaotic lives. It can also create a sense of achievement.

Remember that most diets have a target weight in view and that achieving your target is seen as a victory. We’ve all seen the “aren’t you great’’ segments on TV in which people who set out to lose a given amount of weight stand in front of the cameras in their new, approved-of bodies to be applauded.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that some people don’t stop when they reach their target – they just keep chasing that sense of achievement. That is why Weight Watchers, for instance, insists that people who reach their target should maintain it rather than seek to go on losing weight endlessly.

An eating disorder can, alternatively, be linked to self-hatred and not to achievement. This can arise from emotional, physical or sexual abuse in the past, though there can be other causes.

Eating disorders also help to ward off anxiety. An eating disorder can provide a massive amount of distraction from anxiety: weighing food, exercising, taking laxatives, seeking food when on an eating binge, weighing yourself. dressing to conceal your loss or gain in weight, talking about it to people who are worried about you, and so on.

The disorder also distracts the person from distressing memories which, in themselves, may be a source of massive anxiety.

And then there’s what I think of, in my more cyncial moments, as the obesity industry. A great many experts are industriously going around and warning us about obesity.

I am prepared to take the experts’ word for it that levels of obesity have increased. But I wonder if the distinction between being overweight, or plump, or “well-padded’’ as against being obese is being lost in the clamour?

How many overweight schoolboys and schoolgirls are taunted and bullied on the back of the obesity scare – and God help those who are actually obese.

How many will go on to develop an eating disorder as a consequence? Time will tell, but perhaps experts issuing warnings about obesity might temper their words for the sake of those who are in the firing line for taunts from schoolmates and colleagues.

In general, it seems to me the greater the emotional wellbeing of families, the greater the chances that family members can avoid developing eating disorders. At the present time, emotional wellbeing should be high on every family’s agenda, regardless of economic circumstances.

For all these reasons I was interested to see that Teen Counselling is to hold a seminar in Croke Park this Thursday, mainly for professionals working with teenagers.

The seminar isn’t about eating disorders but aims to help practitioners learn more about counselling teenagers and their families.

Teen Counselling is a project of Crosscare, which provides social services on behalf of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The counselling service is free and is located in Drumcondra, Finglas, Clondalkin, Tallaght and Dún Laoghaire.

We could do with many, many more such services for teenagers and their families in Dublin and throughout the country.

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book That’s Men, The Best of the That’s Men column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times