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Eating Disorders and Boys

People often think that only girls and women have eating disorders. But 10 million boys and men in the U.S. have them as well. Children’s Health works closely with families to help boys with eating disorders understand their condition and develop healthier eating habits.

What are Eating Disorders in Boys?

People with eating disorders have unhealthy thoughts and behaviors around their food or body weight. They might exercise too much and/or diet to develop a muscular body shape, or avoid foods with certain tastes and textures. Children with eating disorders can develop serious health problems from not getting enough nutrients.

Many people think eating disorders don’t affect boys or men. That’s not true, but boys and men are often less likely to seek treatment. Fortunately, boys who do get treatment have the same results and success rates as girls.

What are the different types of Eating Disorders in Boys?

Eating disorders affect how a child thinks and behaves toward food. For example, a boy may see himself as overweight, even though he is actually normal weight or underweight. Or a boy might see himself as too skinny or not muscular enough and obsess over having a more muscular body.

The most common types of eating disorders in boys include:

Anorexia nervosa

Children with anorexia have a strong desire to avoid gaining weight. This can lead them to lose unhealthy amounts of weight. They are often extremely underweight (very thin) for their age but can be in or above their healthy weight range as well.

Bulimia nervosa

Children with bulimia tend to eat large amounts of food at once (called binge eating). Then they do something to avoid gaining weight, such as making themselves vomit, taking laxatives or exercising excessively. They can be average weight, underweight or even overweight for their age.

Avoidant and restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)

Children with ARFID struggle to eat for reasons that are unrelated to weight gain or body image. They may eat only a few specific foods and refuse all others. This may be based on texture, taste, a fear of choking or vomiting, or other fears or struggles. Boys with ARFID may lack the nutrients they need to grow and be active.

What are the signs and symptoms of Eating Disorders in Boys?

Symptoms vary depending on which eating disorder a boy has.

Common anorexia symptoms in boys

  • Constant dieting and avoiding many foods
  • Distorted view of body shape and weight, such as denying how thin they are
  • Extreme thinness
  • Frequent and intense exercise
  • Losing weight quickly or in large amounts
  • Avoiding family meals or eating in public
  • Expressing concern about weight and body image, such as obsessing over big biceps or muscled abs

Common bulimia symptoms in boys

  • Using pills such as laxatives and diuretics (to lose weight after bingeing)
  • Constant talk or concern about food and weight
  • Constant exercise
  • Stealing, hiding or hoarding food
  • Avoiding family meals or eating in public
  • Spending long amounts of time in the restroom with the water running (to cover the sound of vomiting), especially right after meals

Common ARFID symptoms in boys

  • Anxiety around food in social situations
  • Avoiding eating or taking a long time to eat
  • Growth problems
  • Less energy than normal
  • Requesting certain foods often and refusing others
  • Weight loss

How are Eating Disorders in Boys diagnosed?

Only medical professionals can properly diagnose an eating disorder. They do this by gathering information about your child’s health and behavior through interviews, tests and exams.

To determine if your son has an eating disorder, we may look at their blood count and organ function, to see if they need medical care to restore the right balance of nutrients. We will ask you and your child about his eating and exercise habits, as well as certain social behaviors. Boys with eating disorders may withdraw from friends or do poorly in school, because they’re hiding or struggling with their disorder.

What causes Eating Disorders in Boys?

Many factors play a role in children developing eating disorders. These factors include genetics, stress, experiences, and social and cultural pressures to have a particular weight or appearance.

For example, many boys will feel pressure to be lean and muscular. This can lead to unhealthy eating habits and an obsession with changing their bodies.

Children of all different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and cultures can develop eating disorders. They do not choose to have an eating disorder, nor do they develop one because of parenting choices.

How are Eating Disorders in Boys treated?

We take time to get to know each boy and his challenges, so we can plan the treatment that your son needs to get better. Treatments often include:

  • Individual, group and family therapy to help your son develop healthier eating behaviors
  • Nutritional counseling with a dietitian, who can help your son develop skills and plans for healthy eating
  • Medical treatment, if necessary, to help restore the right balance of nutrients to your son’s body. We provide different levels of care depending on what your son needs. Many boys start out by staying in the hospital and receive less intensive care as their condition improves. Levels of care options include:
    • Inpatient hospitalization, where your son stays in the hospital throughout the day and at night, so we can monitor his health and help him rebuild nutrients
    • Partial hospitalization, where your child stays at the hospital throughout the day and goes home in the evening. While in a partial hospitalization program, your son is managed by a team of medical professionals and therapists and participates in therapy time and in school time.
    • Intensive outpatient care, which involves three to four hours of group therapy treatment a day, three times a week, usually in the afternoon after school
    • Outpatient care, which involves regular outpatient appointments

Doctors and Providers treating Eating Disorders in Boys

Children’s Health℠ medical professionals specialize in treating eating disorders in children and teens, including boys and children under age 12. Our experts have treated many boys with eating disorders and helped them get back to healthy lives. We work with you and other family members as one team, dedicated to giving your son the care they need.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What negative health effects can eating disorders cause?

    Not eating enough or enough of the right nutrients can be very harmful. Anorexia can cause low blood pressure and damage to major organs like the brain, kidneys and heart. Children with bulimia can also have organ damage, while frequent vomiting can damage their teeth and throat as well. With ARFID, children might not hit the milestones for height and weight that are expected for their age.

  • How can I help my child recover?

    Families are essential to helping boys with eating disorders get better. Have compassion for your son and the fears and struggles that come with his disorder. Help him understand his disorder and how it affects his thoughts and behaviors. Bring the whole family together for regular, relaxed and balanced meals. Actions like these help boys with eating disorders feel safe and supported as they create healthier habits.

  • Where can I find a support group?

    We will provide you with resources to help both you and your son. You can also find information about eating disorders and support groups in the Resources section below.

Resources