For 25 years, Reid Hausch was an addict. Constantly bingeing on sweets, he could inhale a half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting. All over the house he hid his chocolate and peppermint candy “fixes,” attempting to conceal from his family how much he was eating. This overeating took its toll. For 2 1/2 decades, his 5-foot-10 frame carried from 195 to 240 pounds.
Today Hausch, 50, of Costa Mesa, understands something he wasn’t aware of during those years. As a compulsive overeater, he was suffering from a disorder that other men also experienced.
“Unlike women, who generally count every pound, men are not that conscious about their weight as a group. They can always rationalize and justify, patting their stomach, blaming it on beer and laughing,” says Hausch, who is now a steady 155 pounds and counsels others with eating disorders.
While female eating disorders continue to hold the media’s attention and keep physicians and mental health professionals busy, many male eating disorders have gone almost undetected and unrecognized.
It’s estimated that 10% of the 4 million anorexics and bulimics in the United States are male. An even greater percentage of the 10 million people who have binge eating disorders are male, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Many experts feel that the number of males with eating disorders is actually underreported and that the disease’s incidence is increasing for men. Dr. Barton Blinder, clinical professor and director of eating disorder research in the department of psychiatry at UC Irvine College of Medicine, says that in the last 10 years, an increasing number of serious male cases have been reported.
One group that has increasingly shown signs of developing eating disorders are men in the 55 to 60 age range, says Blinder. “Some of these men develop an eating disorder after a health scare associated with heart disease or an emotional trauma such as the loss of a spouse,” he says. “In other cases, the men are somewhat narcissistic and afraid of aging; controlling their eating is an attempt at preserving youth.”
Males with eating disorders often go undetected because of the shame and embarrassment they feel over not being able to control their eating, says Diane Kedy, an Irvine registered dietitian who specializes in working with people with eating disorders.
“Men see the problem as a woman’s disease, and society reinforces this stereotype,” she says. “Open up just about any women’s magazine and you’ll find information on dieting, compared to men’s magazines, which focus on keeping fit and sports.”
For years, Frank Whitaker, 24, a psychology student who lives in Laguna Hills, hid his eating disorders, which ran the gamut from compulsive overeating to bulimia and even anorexic behavior. Over 10 years time, he fluctuated between 144 and 230 pounds. At his heaviest he was very obese for his 5-foot-6 frame.
When Whitaker joined the military and entered boot camp, he did extra exercises and ate very little. “The other guys would say, ‘You need to eat,’ but I just told them I was watching my weight,” he says. During that time, he lost more than 30 pounds, which he gained back 12 weeks out of boot camp after a period of bingeing.
“Your behavior is very shaming and secretive,” he says. “I would buy a large pizza and a pecan pie at a restaurant and tell the person that I was having company, when I was really going home to eat the pizza alone.” He also hid the fact that at one point he was on diet powders and even became addicted to diet pills.
Men with eating disorders often do a good job of concealing their problem from co-workers, friends and even spouses and children, says Blinder, who in addition to his work at UC Irvine also has a private practice in Newport Beach and has treated many males with eating disorders.
There is not a lot of discussion of male eating disorders because for men, overeating especially is looked upon as an amusing indulgence.
Whether they’re laughing outwardly or not, the truth is men with eating disorders are living the life of an addict. Eating disorders typically follow the same pattern as alcoholism and drug abuse.
“I’d be in control of my eating for a while and would be losing weight, but then I’d go on a really bad binge,” says Whitaker. “The binge would be followed by a resolution to never do that again, but the pattern would just repeat itself.”
Like drug addicts and alcohol abusers, those with eating disorders are also plagued by a sense of incompetence and failure. “Even when I got down to a normal weight at times, I saw myself as the biggest, fattest slob in the world,” says Whitaker.
Among those who have done extensive research into the area of male eating disorders is Dr. Arnold Andersen, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Iowa and editor of a book of scientific studies, “Males With Eating Disorders” (Brunner/Mazel, 1990). Anderson said certain professions tend to promote eating disorders among men. “Male jockeys, wrestlers (including adolescents), swimmers, models, dancers and flight attendants are vulnerable to eating disorders because their jobs necessitate weight restriction,” Anderson said.
“Jockeys currently waste themselves through food intake restriction, excessive sauna use (up to four hours with a seven-pound weight loss), laxative abuse, intake of diuretics and appetite suppressants and self-induced vomiting,” he said.
In some cases, men with eating disorders have other psychiatric problems, such as compulsive obsessive disorder.
“This disorder is characterized by obsessive thinking and compulsive ritualistic behaviors regarding food,” says Kedy, who helps men with eating disorders regain normal eating patterns. “Obsessive compulsives will eat just at specific times and only certain percentages of their food.”
Those working with men with eating disorders note that many struggle with alcohol and drug use as well as with food.
Many have traumatic circumstances in their backgrounds, such as child abuse and violent family confrontations. One bulimic man said his father and brother were both extremely violent and beat his mother and older sister on a regular basis. He also learned bulimic behavior from his mother, who would vomit in the shower after they’d gone out for a large dinner.
Turning to food for comfort is a recurring theme among those with eating disorders. Brian Buckner, 38, of Orange is an executive with a large national company who has recently brought his weight under control. He started overeating about the same time he began abusing alcohol--at the age of 8 or 9. He stopped drinking about seven years ago.
“Just as drinking alcohol numbs and medicates you, so does eating an entire cake,” says Buckner, who is 6 foot 3 and weighed 350 pounds at one point. (Today he is down to 230 pounds). “Food is a filler for the emptiness and loneliness you feel.”
Although Buckner said he has been very successful professionally, he never felt he was doing “good enough.”
For many men, their recovery begins when they start feeling better about themselves. Correcting distorted thinking about eating and body image goes hand in hand with learning healthy eating habits.
Whitaker said that when he started dealing with his feelings surrounding his family and his current life, he began to get the bingeing under control. “It’s easier to blame everything on your weight than to look at the real issues and yourself,” he says. “I finally realized that if I deal with my feelings and emotions surrounding my current and past relationships that eating isn’t a real issue anymore.”
Today Whitaker is a normal weight of 186 pounds for his six-foot frame. He has maintained his weight within five pounds for almost two years.
Now, whenever Whitaker starts reverting back to old behaviors and feels 300 pounds again, he looks inward. “If I’m feeling really fat while I’m waiting for a blind date, I ask myself what’s really going on. The truth may be that I’m worried she won’t like me, and my weight has nothing to do with that.”