Traditionally women have always been at the heart of the eating disorder spotlight.
What does it mean for Orthorexia? Are men impacted differently? To a lesser or greater extent? For the same or different reasons?
First of all the concept of Orthorexia is entirely gender neutral. Whilst the data on the prevalence of eating disorders shows a skew towards females, supposedly in part due to societal expectations of the female body image, reflection of a data collection bias, or the reality itself, there isn’t a reason to assume the desire to be healthy (…pure/clean/natural/organic) is inherently a female one today. Similarly, although it doesn’t exist in isolation, since it’s conception Orthorexia has never primarily been about body image* unlike more typical eating disorders which can be body image driven.
*Bratman has however acknowledged the evolution of Orthorexia to now include increasing occurrence of Anorexic behavior and mentality in some cases, as well the incorporation of aesthetic benefits of being fitter. Thus the lines continue to blur.
However, it seems that men often do suffer from the similar pressures when it comes to Orthorexia as other eating disorders – to shy away from the idea of having an eating disorder at all. The still low awareness of Orthorexia in general doesn’t help, and neither does the extent to which people are (not) taking it seriously (<- this post came from a great point of view and I respect the author, but the concept or Orthorexia is not understood…).
I think it’s highly likely there are many males who suffer but are simply not aware they are suffering. It certainly took me a while to discover Orthorexia, and the symptoms of Orthorexia can be so easily swept up with the broader clean eating trend we have seen over the last few years (not to mistake these as the same thing though). To the distanced or unaware, there is little difference between someone on a diet, or someone who is interested in nutrition, and someone with sustained Orthorexia.
Another reason I think Men with Orthorexia potentially gets overlooked is because it can manifest itself differently based on the differing societal expectations on men today; i.e. there is probably more overlap with apparent fitness enthusiasm than there is with traditional dieting that has generally tended to implicate women more when it comes to unmasking cases of Orthorexia.
Orthorexia is not about obsession with sport/fitness alone, but often goes hand in hand, as it contributes so greatly to the over-riding ambition of health, and one’s righteous ambition to become a superior version of oneself (including maybe the aesthetically superior version as Bratman has pointed out).
Anecdotally I think it’s interesting to observe that men may often start from a fitness point of view and end up eating a certain way, whereas women may start with the food and health perspective and end up adopting certain fitness routines. etc. But this pattern is by no means always true.
Regardless I believe for many men (although not myself) the original desire to better oneself and reach a pinnacle of performance is expressed greatly through achieving physical fitness and then supporting this with obsessive nutrition.
Special mention to ‘Bigorexia’. (Apparently the obsession with gaining muscle size.)
As of today, my view is that the slang term ‘Bigorexia’ found in the social sphere is not a correct way to summarize the male manifestation of Orthorexia as described above. I am yet to see Bigorexia as any condition we should consider different or special, even though I recognize it as something which can have an equally serious negative psychological impact. In fact the only thing ‘special’ about it, is that anecdotally speaking it is far more prevalent in men than women (although even then not always!).
So is it an eating disorder? Well, at the core it can be obsessive. It can be an unhealthy mentality. It can overlap with weight loss obsession and diet controlling behavior. But the subtle difference to Orthorexia and similarity to other EDs is; it is often vanity driven. Based on body image, and external expectations of society, like other eating disorders are, rather than primarily one’s internal drive to be a healthier version of one’s self.
(This isn’t to say that other EDs don;t have an underlying internal psychological issue, they do, but they are often triggered, and driven by these observable external factors).
Perhaps the informal term created for this condition is useful, perhaps not. We could end up defining hundreds of different variants of the same body image insecurities over time, even though they all fundamentally share the same cause.
So in some ways Orthorexia in men is the same, and in some ways it’s different. Either way it shouldn’t be overlooked as we continue to consider how to help identify and manage people with the condition.