BY NANCY CLARK
PHOTO BY VICTOR FREITAS
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Guys, do you know that eating disorders are not just a woman’s issue? An estimated eight percent of male athletes, as compared to 33 percent of female athletes, have pathological eating disorders that can damage their physical and mental health. This includes anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and compulsive exercise. Another 19 percent of male athletes likely have sub-clinical disordered eating behaviors. If anything, these estimates are low because eating issues in males can be challenging to identify. Many go undetected and untreated, as demonstrated by new research published earlier this year.
Male rowers, like all male athletes, live in an environment that can easily trigger disordered eating. Triggers include:
• immense pressure to look a certain way to perform well
• social media’s idolization of the “perfect physique”
• incessant comparison of oneself to others
• a competitive nature and drive to be better than others
Result: Some male rowers, in particular lightweight rowers, resort to extreme behavior in their attempt to be able to control their body shape and size. They do extra training and become extra vigilant about their food intake. It’s not uncommon for one rower to observe another who eats restrictively and start to wonder. “If he cuts out XXX (sugar, red meat, white flour, etc.), maybe I should, too. ” Somehow, eliminating XXX becomes the path to becoming a better rower, and the rower starts down that slippery slope into a full-blown eating disorder. It can happen so easily, quickly, and unknowingly.
Advertising and social media teach men that they should look lean and muscular. But no one teaches them that the images are photoshopped. Or that some of the male models use performance-enhancing drugs to help them look so buff. As a result, male athletes tend to suffer in silence with their concerns about their bodies, which they may perceive as “flawed.” After all, real men don’t talk about this stuff with others. Hence, they may believe they are the only ones who eat less and exercise more to fix their flaws. They may not even realize their behavior is abnormal. Don’t all serious male lightweight rowers live on salad to be lighter, leaner, and supposedly better? Turns out, that is not the key to success.
Why do eating disorders take root in men in the first place?
An eating disorder gives a sense of control. While a rower cannot control his genes or the coach’s opinion of him, he can attempt to control his food, exercise, and weight. Given the incorrect belief that the lighter athlete is the better athlete, competitiveness can take hold. A vulnerable male can feel compelled to do whatever it takes to reach a performance goal or a target weight. Unfortunately, one rower’s extreme dieting can become another rower’s motivation to become even more extreme. (“If Joe skips breakfast to lose weight, I should skip breakfast and lunch.”) The male sporting environment embraces and rewards extremes.
Extreme behavior can bring desirable results initially–as well as praise (“Our No.1 rower is the healthiest eater on the team”). Compliments are validating, confidence-boosting, and perceived as a positive sign that their efforts are paying off—until the body begins falling apart. (Rower + too much exercise + too little fuel = injuries, sooner or later.)
If a male rower hears a negative comment such as “Looks like you’ve gained some weight,” he may feel the need to work harder and go to extremes to correct the problem. While eating less and training more might look like discipline and dedication to the sport, the extremes can destroy one’s quality of life, to say nothing of dramatically increasing the odds of getting a stress fracture, pulled ligament, tendinitis, or some other injury associated with under-fueling and/or poor nutrition.
Research confirms that few male athletes readily seek treatment for their eating disorders. They may believe they are not “sick enough” to justify getting help. They are likely unaware of the risks to their physical and mental health. Most are unaware that their thinking and behavior are disordered.
Many males have no one to talk to. This leads to suffering in silence. If a male athlete does try to talk about his experience to a teammate, the teammate may express disbelief and show little sympathy for what the athlete is talking about. This can lead to embarrassment and shame. It’s shameful not only to have an eating disorder (Isn’t that a woman’s issue?), but also to want a body that’s slim (as opposed to muscular, as the culture demands). It’s easier to try to hide their eating disorders rather than share their personal issues.
Other male athletes don’t even know they have a problem because they have been performing well (so far) and no one seems concerned about their extreme dieting and exercise. They just get praise for how dedicated and disciplined they are. These positive comments must mean the behavior is justified and effective, but injury will inevitably dispel the illusion.
In a survey of eight men with eating disorders, only four sought help—and only when the physical and mental costs of restrictive eating outweighed the benefits. One subject reached out for help after he passed out on the side of the road during a long run. Others acknowledged the loss of sexual interest/function (side effects of under-fueling), and that the heightened anxiety, depression, and extreme fatigue just weren’t worth it anymore.
What can we do to minimize eating disorders?
All male athletes, rowers included, need to be educated about:
• fueling wisely to enhance performance and health;
• the benefits of staying away from social media sites that focus on super-fit bodies (to compare is to despair);
- the benefits of training appropriately, not compulsively
Coaches, athletic trainers, and sports medicine professionals also need to be educated about warning signs of eating concerns (skipping team meals, complaining about body fat, eating “super clean”). Like a torn ligament, an eating disorder is an injury—a mental-health injury. Male rowers deserve to be able to seek help comfortably instead of suffering alone and in silence.