EATING disorders are usually associated with impressionable te
But the quest for physical perfection is now taking its toll on a growing population of teenage boys, who obsessively exercise to emulate muscle-bound men they see on TV.
Riverdale Specialist Eating Disorders Hospital in Sheffield has seen a third of the beds in its teenage unit taken up by adolescent males since it opened the department 18 months ago.
The hospital’s development manager Claire Lockwood, speaking to mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week, told The Star the problems of male eating disorders have always been underestimated.
“It used to be thought that one in 10 people with an eating disorder were male,” she said.
“Now it is thought that it is closer to one in four. In my experience it is a growing problem with young men.
“Part of that is because we are better at identifying it, because more people accept that it is a problem.”
Riverdale treats adolescents aged 13 to 18 in its nine-bed residential teenage unit, and adults in a separate 10-bed unit, but also runs outpatient care and a variety of therapies, ranging from cognitive behavioural therapy to body image counselling.
The facility, in Ranmoor, Sheffield, has recently appointed a exercise psychologist Luke Barron to work with patients - often men - who overexercise.
Luke, who studied for a masters degree in sport and exercise psychology before his appointment, said the problem can be more serious than many people think.
“People get stuck between the desire to be thin, and the desire to build muscle,” he said.
“They are undereating, but overexercising.”
He said the drive to exercise can be driven by a way to cope with stress or anxiety.
But whatever the cause, the results can be devastating.
“The weight loss becomes a major health risk,” he said.
“Their muscles start to shrink, then their organs start to shrink. It can have major cognitive problems, usually an inability to rationalise properly and negative thoughts.
“They become driven by routine.”
In extreme cases exercise becomes an addiction, a psychological need, which can be catastrophic when combined with under-eating.
Luke said the warning signs for parents to look out for include becoming obsessed with the routine of training, putting it before their social life and education.
“It is a fine line, because young people can be mad about sport,” he said.
“But it becomes a problem when they become obsessive and rigid about their routine.
“They might start training even when they have an injury. And weight loss is a big indicator that it is a problem.”
When people are admitted to Riverdale Luke starts by talking through the rationale behind their exercise.
“We challenge the belief that people may have built up about their physical activity,” he said.
“We try to build a more structured way of exercising, making it more of a positive thing.”
Inpatients usually stay for a 12-week period, restructuring the way they think about food and sport, normalising eating and exercise patterns, and undergoing therapy and counselling.
Claire said: “Family therapy is a big part of what we do.
“In many cases people will not have eaten together for a year or more - that’s why it becomes easier for young people to avoid eating.
“Part of what we do is to get families in to the centre to eat together.”
Although a third of the teenage patients at the hospital are male, in the adult unit only one man has been admitted in the last year.
Claire thinks eating disorders are still a common problem for grown men, but adults are less willing to come forward for treatment.
“Adult males don’t tend to come to professionals for help,” she said.
“It’s not picked up by schools or parents, as it is with teenage boys.”
She said the best advice for parents who fear their children have an eating disorder is to be careful when challenging them.
“Broach the subject carefully - if you are confrontational you can make it worse by making them hide the problem.
“And make sure you get support yourself. Often we see parents completely burned out by dealing with their children’s problems.
“They are then less able to help them.”
How anorexia nearly claimed my son’s life
ANOREXIA is a problem that most people think just affects girls. But one mum told The Star how her son was nearly killed by the disorder.
My son is a gifted boy, academically brilliant and a bit of a perfectionist.
Looking back, we can see he was never really happy with himself - he didn’t like his looks, his curly hair, he hated wearing glasses and, worst of all, he hated being tubby.
At 14, puberty kicked in and it was not kind - he seemed to grow six inches overnight, he suddenly had body hair, terrible acne and his voice dropped.
And that year, the school nurse’s report said that he needed to lose at least 10kg.
We encouraged him to focus on eating healthy and being active.
He’s a smart kid so he did just that. He’d have one slice of bread instead of three and he joined a rugby club.
We think that’s when the problem started.
We found out much later that one of the boys was calling him names, telling him he shouldn’t be on the team because he was fat.
His confidence hit rock bottom. He desperately wanted to get fit so he could ‘show them’.
He learned all about nutrition, he ate healthily and exercised six days a week. It was a real transformation. He’d lost 12 kgs and looked amazing.
But he didn’t stop, he didn’t ease up and he wasn’t satisfied with the results.
He began behaving oddly, washing his hands repeatedly and doing strange little routines.
We took him to see a psychologist who diagnosed anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. The counselling didn’t help. The OCD got worse and he ate less and less.
Something took hold of him and we were powerless to make him see that he was going too far, and then he was diagnosed with anorexia. He was admitted to intensive care with a heart rate of 33. We were told if it dropped to 30 he could die.
He was discharged on condition that we took him directly to residential care in an anorexic unit.
I found Riverdale. It was one of only two specialised eating disorder units that would take a teenage boy but could also deal with his OCD, anxiety and depression. The staff at Riverdale were wonderful.
After three weeks we were told he was eating well and that he would be better off at home. Now he is 16 and going from strength to strength.
Talking to your child about an eating disorder
TALKING to a child about their condition can be very difficult, especially if they don’t understand they have a problem.
Prepare what to say.
Don’t blame or judge.
Concentrate on how they’re feeling.
Learn as much as possible about eating disorders, and have resources to refer to.
Avoid talking about their appearance, even if it is meant as a compliment.
If you are worried about eating disorders contact Riverdale on 0114 2302140 or the South Yorkshire Eating Disorder Association on 0114 272 8855.
Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs this week, until Sunday. For events near you, log-on to www.b-eat.co.uk.