Though eating disorders generally afflicts females, males aren't immune to eating disorders like bulimia nervosa.
For Shawn, this week poses as a personal, important one: it’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
Though many don’t typically associate eating disorders with males, the male population isn’t immune from the condition. That’s why the normally mild-mannered Shawn is stepping up to convey this message to men with eating disorders: “Be a man, and recognize that you need help.”
The National Eating Disorders Association classifies bulimia nervosa as “a secretive cycle of binge eating followed by purging.” People who have the condition, like Shawn, generally consume large amounts of food and then expel the food by way of vomiting or use of laxatives.
Shawn’s progression toward bulimia first began when he was a freshman in college and became very conscious of his body image.
“I just became aware of how others around me were building muscle, and I became addicted to the gym. I wanted the cut arms, shoulders and abs,” he said.
Later that year, he began to induce vomiting as a way to cope with anxiety over his body.
“That’s when I started to throw up after I ate. I noticed I started to grow a small gut from the late college nights of eating pizza and drinking beer. It just started to take off from there. I figured I could eat whatever I wanted as long as I threw it up after,” he said.
Elizabeth Holm, DrPH, RD, a nutritionist in private practice specializing in eating disorders, explains that binge eating is triggered by restricting calories and food to lose weight or maintain an abnormally low weight range.
“In essence, binge eating can be a way of coping with emotions, because it numbs a person to feelings,” said Holm. “Purging brings a sense of relief. A person with bulimia purges to avoid weight gain from the binge but may also be driven to purge when experiencing strong feelings or emotions.”
Shawn admits that he was embarrassed to think that he might have an eating disorder, especially since the condition is normally associated with females.
“The general stereotype is that eating disorders are paired with women worried about their figure. Like most women and men, I was worried about my body, but at that time, I didn’t handle my health like I should have. I should have lost weight by diet and exercise,” he said.
As Holm stresses, it’s hard to know if a person has bulimia, because the processes of binging and purging are kept secret.
“Signs of bulimia include large amounts of disappearing food, discarded packaging for food, laxatives or diet pills, going to the bathroom frequently after eating or skipping meals and then eating a large amount of food in one sitting,” she said.
Still, there are outward symptoms that one with bulimia may exhibit, like a chipmunk-look to the face from swollen salivary glands or calluses on the tops of the fingers from self-induced vomiting.
Shawn explains that, in college, no one knew that he suffered from bulimia, because he purged and binged in the early morning or late at night, when no one was around. He kept jars of peanut butter in his closet and guesses he spent close to $200 a month on pizza from the delivery place down the street.
“I’d stay out at all hours on end, binge drinking, and then I’d come home and eat two pizzas in one sitting. Then, I’d throw it all up. There was this sense of self-satisfaction but more so this sense of self-loathing,” he said. “You know, people eat food for comfort and millions have unhealthy relationships with it. That’s why there are so many overweight individuals in society today. But it’s just that my relationship with food involved throwing it up, too.”
Those with bulimia are at risk for a long list of health issues, like increased risk of dental caries and gingivitis. The Mayo Clinic also describes health risks associated with bulimia to include gastrointestinal abnormalities, dehydration, sores in the throat and mouth, irregular heartbeat, depression, anxiety and nutrient deficiencies.
“I was a pretty depressed person, and I eventually came to realize that bulimia was a manifestation of my depression and childhood trauma. It wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. I knew if I had to be ashamed of anything, it would be not getting help for something that could pretty much kill me,” Shawn said.
Individuals suffering from bulimia and looking to recover should seek psychotherapy and nutritional counseling. Holm explains that a therapist can help with issues of self-identity, trauma and emotional regulation, and that a nutritionist is used to help a person follow a healthy food plan.
“Both the therapist and the nutritionist can use cognitive-behavioral techniques to help the person eliminate binge eating and purging. Recovery often includes learning to identify hunger and satiety signals, separating emotional hunger from physical hunger and practicing mindful eating,” she said.
Shawn confesses that admitting he had an eating disorder took courage. Still, that was the first step toward recovery, a process that he feels saved his life.
“Talk to anyone who’s recovered from an eating disorder, and they’re not going to say that they wish they hadn’t sought help. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone wants to be healthy. People just sometimes have to walk down different paths before they find it,” he said, “let today be that day. Admit you need help. You’ll be a stronger person for it.”
If you or someone you know may be suffering from an eating disorder, here are some local resources that can provide help:
When: Wednesday evenings, 7 to 8 p.m.
For More Information, Contact:
Julianne Brechtl, RN at (703) 538-2886
Visit http://www.edreferral.com/states/dc.html for contact information of other nutritionists and therapists with experience in treating eating disorders.
For information about diagnosis, treatment options, research or how to help a loved one, visit The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders at www.ANAD.org.