Dear Mr. Dad: I'm completely convinced that my son has an eating disorder. When he was little, he was always a little on the heavy side. At about 11 – right when puberty hit – he suddenly started dieting. At first, I was proud of him for taking charge of his own weight. He looked really good and seemed happier with himself. But he kept right on dieting, to the point that he began to look skinny. To make matters worse, he's talking about wanting to lose more weight. Thinking our son might be really sick, my husband and I took him to our pediatrician, who said he was fine and told him to put on some weight. I asked whether our son could have an eating disorder, but the pediatrician just smirked. What should we do?
A: Two things: First, get yourself a new pediatrician. Of the 30 million people in the U.S. who suffer from eating disorders, about a third are male. As are about half of all those who binge eat, purge, abuse laxatives, fast, and do other extreme things to lose weight. But far too many medical professionals, including your pediatrician, are too attached to the idea that girls and women are the only ones affected.
Second, find a mental health professional who has experience treating eating disorders. As with pediatricians, many therapists have trouble acknowledging that boys and men can be affected. Finding the right mental health person will be essential if your son needs extended outpatient or inpatient treatment. Most eating disorder programs and facilities don't accept males. That, of course, makes it harder for boys like your son to get the treatment they so desperately need.
Third, talk to your son. He may actually realize that he's got a problem but may be resisting asking for help because he's internalized the eating-disorders-are-for-girls message and worries that people might see him as less-than masculine.
Since we're on the subject of males suffering from conditions that most of us think affect only women, I want to mention osteoporosis. We all know that being overweight increases men's risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems including heart attack and stroke. But a study recently presented at the North American Society for Radiology found that being overweight – especially if that excess fat is worn around the middle – greatly reduces men's bone strength and makes them more prone to fractures and breaks. And while osteoporosis in women affects mainly those 60 years and older, in men, the effects are apparent even as young as 34.
And a just-published study in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that men 35-50 were slightly more likely than women the same age to suffer from osteopenia, which is a loss of bone density that's not quite as severe as osteoporosis. However, untreated, osteopenia can develop into osteoporosis later in life. Treatments start with lifestyle modifications, including increasing exercise and calcium intake, and reducing alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.)