Would you be surprised to learn that millions of men around the world will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, with athletes far more likely to be affected than non-athletes?
Veteran broadcast journalist and correspondent Soledad O’Brien was shocked to learn that and more, while reporting on eating disorders in male athletes for a recent segment of HBO’s Real Sports.
“I was surprised at first, because I always thought that elite athletes in some way treat their bodies like a temple, but then when you realize that many of them would say what made them an elite athlete is also what made them really great at having an eating disorder, it started to make sense,” O’Brien tells Muscle & Fitness.
Eating disorders actually carry the highest mortality rate when it come to mental illnesses, with male athletes suffering from more than anorexia or bulimia: binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting are some of the other eating disorders affecting male athletes on all levels—from youth sports all the way up to the pros.
Last year, former Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Marjama retired at 28 to become an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). He had battled anorexia and bulimia for five years as a California adolescent, before entering inpatient treatment. He wanted to dedicate his life to helping others with similar issues.
We spoke with O’Brien and the producer of the Real Sports segment, Maggie Burbank, about what they learned from investigating the subject and their reactions to eating disorders among male athletes.
O’Brien: I really could not believe that number because I would not have guessed it! I would have thought it’s a fraction of that. And, then, when we really started diving into the piece and talking both to mostly the young men who were struggling and the experts, I think it made a lot more sense because there’s just such a stigma and there’s no real system where these guys can very easily get help.
O’Brien: They’re competitive, they don’t want to lose. They will do anything in order to give them an advantage and when it kind of crosses the line to disorders of eating, you can see how that intensity, which is great and essential in elite sports, can pretty easily translate to somebody whose really unable to control their food. I think there is a lot around the culture of sport that is ‘suck it up,’ ‘no pain no gain,’ ‘push through it.’ I think that’s very much supported socially by people who are around the athletes. I think there’s a huge sense of support for people who are like, ‘Listen, you really have to suffer in order to be top-notch and top-tier.’ The idea that what makes you a great athlete makes you really great at being anorexic—that made sense to me.
Burbank: The athletes that are most at-risk are the men who are playing or competing in aesthetic sports like figure skating or gymnastics or weight-class sports like wrestling, rowing, cycling. When you think about that, that does make sense to me. How you look or physically how much you weigh—a lot of your success depends on that.
O’Brien: I think, what was interesting to me was that they would go through a binge and just describe that binge as hiding in the closet and eating pizza or scarfing down an entire jar or jars of peanut butter—more food and more food and more food. I think I was surprised that they didn’t realize they were binging. It never really occurred to them that they had an eating disorder, even though what they were doing was clearly the definition of binging.
Burbank: I think a lot of people, when they hear eating disorder, they think of anorexia and people who are extremely underweight. I think eating disorders are much more complicated. There are many subsets of eating disorders, and to me, binge eating to a lot of people—it’s not [an eating disorder] at all. The anorexia numbers are one out of four for men. But then there’s these other behaviors like binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, fasting that are almost as common among men as they are among women, but maybe some of them don’t seem as sort of a classic eating disorder that people think about.