Men and eating disorders: ‘I didn't fit the stereotype and suffered in silence'
There's been a sharp rise in eating disorders among men. Read one man's journey from rock bottom to recovery
This year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week (from 27 February-5 March) is highlighting men and boys affected by an eating disorder, many of whom struggle in secret. Archie Trueger, 26, from London, shares his experience of binge eating and his journey to get the help he needed.
"Looking back now, I had been suffering from an eating disorder since I was 13. I didn’t know that at the time, nor did anyone else. As a teenage boy, I didn’t fit the stereotype. It’s only recently that this has become clear to me, after 10 years of living with an eating disorder and years of therapy and support.
From quite an early age, eating became a source of comfort or a distraction. While some people calm themselves by taking deep breaths, I found binge eating soothed me.
My home life during my childhood was volatile and disruptive – my parents divorced when I was nine. Food became my focus, it provided me with a sense of peace. I was a sensitive child and never really felt that I belonged. I placated my emotions with food.
Body image issues
Overeating became an impulsive behaviour which escalated when I switched schools at 15. It caused a lot of anxiety and the only way I could stop the negative feelings was by eating.
As I headed into my late teens, I started to develop a very complicated relationship with my body. I was overweight and I didn’t like the way I looked. My parents and teachers at school were worried about my size too.
I was sad, scared and had low self-esteem. I felt like something was wrong with me. Girls weren’t interested in me either. I had a very warped view of the world and how I should fit in. I began leaning in to my issues further – it escalated to me stealing money from my mum to buy food and taking snacks from my classmates.
I withdrew from school life and friends, and refused to get out of bed in the morning. I’d even retaliate when any of my four older brothers tried to get me to school. The people I would let in only really saw a fraction of me, the rest I would hide from them.
Read more: Teenager who mostly ate croissants for more than a decade finally recovers
Despite my parents offering to help by taking me to doctors and specialists such as dieticians, psychiatrists and personal trainers, it didn’t work. I refused to engage with it. I was so obstinate, but at the same time I was in so much pain.
I was skipping class, playing video games at home and stealing more money to buy food and binge-eat in secret. My sense of self was so shoddy. I thought I was an awful human being. I realise now how painful it must have been for my family to see me being so self-destructive.
Read more: Andrew Flintoff opens up about battle with bulimia in BBC documentary
I was morbidly obese at 16 when my parents were so worried about my size they sent me to a weight loss camp in the US. My BMI was at a point where I was at risk of diabetes. I lost weight, returned to school, put the weight on again and then was back at camp.
Nothing was working, so the following year they found Wellspring Academy, a weight loss school in South Carolina where I followed a focused programme of diet, exercise and online schooling.
In a year I lost a third of my body weight. Now 18, I looked the part but my relationship with my body had dramatically worsened. I had slipped into an anorexic way of thinking and operating.
I was weighing myself three or four times a day. I was working out five days a week and I was eating turkey out of a packet so I could count food portions accurately. Squeezing my 6ft frame into a size small shirt felt like a positive achievement. I was obsessive about measurements and details.
Ironically, on the outside, I was the person I always wanted to be. I had my first girlfriend – albeit very surface level, like the rest of my friendships. I thought if my exterior was fixed, my interior would be too. But the truth was I was a very frightened and insecure man with an eating disorder.
Read more: One in six boys suffer with an eating disorder, according to major study
Things got worse. I went back to binge eating when I started university although the anorexia tapered off. Old behaviours re-emerged – an erratic and secretive lifestyle, missing lectures, drinking to mask myself or dabbling with illegal substances. I had no sense of consequences, so I dropped out.
My chaotic and harmful behaviour came to a head when I was 24. I'd eaten so much one night I vomited. It was frightening. Something switched in my head and I realised I needed to get a grip on my life. The psychiatrist I was seeing – although never really being honest with – recommended a specialist day treatment centre in central London called Orri.
I struggled admitting I had an eating disorder. At my first group meeting, there was only one other guy there and he was anorexic. I used that as an excuse not to engage. I was incapable of feeling vulnerable in front of others. It felt emasculating and weak.
Orri helped put me on the right path of understanding, but I had no concept of how to express my emotions. It was like talking in a foreign language.
I also had a great source of shame and felt like I shouldn't need the help, and unfortunately I relapsed and went into full self-destruction mode. I hit rock bottom.
Read more: 3 in 10 girls under 18 have an eating disorder, finds major new study
My behaviour had become so damaging – it had crossed a line and conflicted with my morals. That’s when I knew it had gone too far. The illness was too powerful to take on alone.
My family couldn’t bear to be around me any more. They sent me to a specialist in-patient facility in South Africa. It was a very structured environment governed by principles instead of rules, with a focus on feelings rather than food.
With support and safety, I started to emotionally connect with others which enabled me to open up more honestly and alleviate the shame. I’m not hiding anything from anyone, any more.
Today, I still require regular help from a therapist and dietician, but I have real relationships and friendships. I enjoy food more. I’ve had to rewire my brain. The easiest pathway to go down is the one that's been established for decades. I’ve learned to redirect my thinking. Once you cultivate new behaviours and connect with people, it gets better."
Men and eating disorders
Kerrie Jones, a psychotherapist and founder of specialist eating disorder treatment service Orri shares some new insights on male eating disorders.
"One of the misconceptions is that eating disorders are all about food. Whilst they manifest in food, it’s usually about somebody feeling deeply unsafe in the world.
"One in four men will at some point in their lives get an eating disorder, but it's often not recognised due to shame or embarrassment – but also gender, age and race. Men are left out in the narrative with eating disorders and subsequently suffer in silence.
"In the last five years alone, there has been a stark rise of 128% in boys and men with eating disorders, from 280 hospital admissions in 2015/16 to 637 in 2020/2021.
"Evidence shows the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome for an immediate and long-term recovery.
"The reality is only six percent of people with an eating disorder are underweight. Also, someone’s BMI might be normal, which can be misleading when trying to diagnose an eating disorder.
"The most important thing is to reach out. There are many services that can help someone understand their problem and explore avenues for support."
For support and information on eating disorders visit Beateatingdisorders.org.uk
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