Underdiagnosed Male Eating Disorders Are Becoming Increasingly Identified NPR's Michel Martin talks with journalist Soledad O'Brien about her recent reporting on eating disorders among male athletes. O'Brien said social media played a big role in these eating disorders.
NPR logo

Underdiagnosed Male Eating Disorders Are Becoming Increasingly Identified

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/699733879/699733880" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Underdiagnosed Male Eating Disorders Are Becoming Increasingly Identified

Underdiagnosed Male Eating Disorders Are Becoming Increasingly Identified

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/699733879/699733880" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to talk now about eating disorders. After years of education by the medical community and advocacy by activists and sufferers, many now understand the threat this disorder poses for young women. But, increasingly, it's been identified among young men, especially young male athletes. Journalist Soledad O'Brien explored this for the HBO program "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel." It premiered on Tuesday, and Soledad is with us now from our bureau in New York. Soledad O'Brien, thank you so much for joining us.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let me play a clip from your conversation with Logan Davis, a hockey player who was obsessed over getting into peak shape. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "REAL SPORTS WITH BRYANT GUMBEL")

LOGAN DAVIS: There were days where I'd eat, like, 500 calories in a day.

O'BRIEN: Did you lose weight?

DAVIS: Close to 30 pounds in a summer.

O'BRIEN: And what was the reaction from your teammates and your coaches?

DAVIS: If anything, it was, like, lauded.

MARTIN: Soledad, you reported that a third of eating disorder patients are men, but we often don't hear about that. Why is that?

O'BRIEN: I think, first of all, it's just something that's not really talked about. And that's really an estimate, a third, because it's a disease that people just don't come clean about, if you will. I think there's a lot of shame, a lot of stigma about it. And, also, when you look at the definition for many about what an eating disorder is, a lot of the men who suffer and are dealing with their eating disorders would say the first thing that they would see would be, well, step one, usually, you'll lose your period. So they would say, well, clearly, this is not for me. This is not an issue I have.

Most of them had no idea. It was a complete surprise and shock to them that they, in fact, had an eating disorder, even though I think people outside of them and in their families and their friends would say, well, clearly, you do. We interviewed a young man who traveled with a chicken breast in his pocket to dinners because he was so anxious about a restaurant not having food that he could eat. And I said to him, like, at that point, when you're pulling a chicken breast out of your pocket, did you think, I clearly have an issue? He said, I thought I was just more dedicated than everybody else.

MARTIN: Your reporting makes the point that some of the very things that make people successful as athletes are the very things that make people successful at maintaining these disorders.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, discipline, wanting it more, being focused and I think also having your coaches and your teammates prodding you, cheering for you, encouraging you along, even though, in many cases, the disordered eating was terrible. They were being cheered because of the results that people would see. And I think society, too, saying, wow, that person is dedicated and more dedicated than everybody else. They want it more.

MARTIN: You know, where society often encourages women to be thin and applauds them for being thin so they see - they sort of get the idea that that's what the ideal is. But you also make the point that this society sort of encourages boys and men to be muscular and bulked up. So the question that I have is like, how does that work, that these young men are still getting the idea that these really unhealthy eating habits is somehow desirable? Did you get a sense of - like, how did that work?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, I think it's a pathway, you know? So I think, at first, the idea is that there is an ideal body that is going to make you - all these young men that we're talking about are elite athletes. They are the best of the best in their sport at the level where they are. And so step one is what you're doing isn't enough, that your body could be even better. And it doesn't actually necessarily even correlate with winning more or being more powerful or swimming faster or being a better cyclist. It's just there's an ideal look and ideal shape, and you're not it yet.

MARTIN: You know, you had a really interesting point in the piece about how the Internet can play into exacerbating these eating disorders. You talked about how some of the experts in the field call this bro science. So the two questions I have is is this more common. Do you think that these eating disorders among men is getting more common in part because people can transmit this information to each other, and it goes viral? Or is it just that we're more aware of this now?

O'BRIEN: Bro science refers to sort of this fake science. I mean, the people have this philosophy that they turn into - here's what I use to lose weight. Here's what I do to build muscle. And it's not scientific at all, but it ends up being posted on social media.

So I think as, obviously, social media grows and takes off, for young people, it becomes a platform to get information from and access to people who are giving them often really, really bad advice and wrong advice about their bodies. All of the young men we spoke to talked about the power of Instagram and literally wanting to show off their bodies or feeling ashamed of their bodies because how they would look on social media.

MARTIN: I wonder what kind of reaction you're getting to it so far. It was also really striking to hear just how - even in a culture where you think people should know about this, how many of the young men talked about how coaches, teammates would pinch their bellies and, you know, basically make them feel bad about their weight. And I just wonder what kind of reaction you're getting. Are you hearing from people like that? Are you wondering if people are thinking about - particularly, people who are in leadership positions are responding to this?

O'BRIEN: Yeah. I think a lot of the people in leadership positions and certainly where Dr. Quatromoni at Boston University, an expert who works with athletes who have eating disorders, would say there's a lot of thought about how to think about nutrition. I was surprised at how little a lot of these elite athletes understood about nutrition. They were thinking in terms of I'm fat, I'm thin but not in terms of what do I need, nutritionally, to make my body most effective so I win.

That was a big surprise to me. And so a lot of colleges are really rethinking how they deal with their students so that you don't have to have an issue like an eating disorder either go unnoticed or even just exist at all because a student is being pinched by a coach who thinks they're being helpful but who ultimately is not.

MARTIN: That's journalist Soledad O'Brien. Her piece on eating disorders among male athletes aired on "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," and it's available now on HBO. Soledad, thanks so much for talking to us.

O'BRIEN: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.