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‘We Want to be Tougher’: Men With Eating Disorders Are Struggling for Help

“Unfortunately, there isn't enough space to talk about it. In the eyes of many people, a man has to be strong, both mentally and physically.” 

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Eating disorders can affect people of all ages, genders and sizes. But when people think of the term, they mostly conjure up images of young, very thin girls with anorexia. Men are almost never part of these discussions, especially if they’re adults.


These stereotypes are reflected in medical research, too – most studies on eating disorders focus on women with anorexia, with only 1 percent of peer-reviewed articles looking into men with the eating disorder. Our scientific understanding is also limited when it comes to similar disorders like bulimia, binge eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

It’s difficult to estimate just how prevalent eating disorders are among men. The most recent review of studies puts that number at 12.8 percent, but that could be an underestimate, according to Isabelle Plasmeijer, founder of the Dutch eating disorder treatment centre ISA Power. Men are just less likely to ask their doctors for help, she explains. One community that is particularly affected by the issue is queer men, who are more likely to develop an eating disorder than their straight counterparts.

Mike Megens, 26, used to have EDNOS, which stands for “eating disorder not otherwise specified”. This involves having symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, but not quite meeting specific criteria, which means the eating disorder cannot be clearly categorised. 


Megens’s self-image changed as early as when he was in primary school. “I was a bit bigger than my classmates, so I regularly got comments about my weight," he recalls. So he tried to lose some weight, and then even more when he started high school, which he saw as a new start. In retrospect, Megens realised his weight loss also had to do with his identity, because he was aware early on that he was attracted to boys. “Fortunately, my parents and my sister always supported me, but some other family members often joked about it, even though I wasn't even out yet,” he says.

Losing weight was a way to protect himself: “If I had good grades, was nice and handsome and had a good body, my sexual orientation would be the only thing that was 'not perfect' in the eyes of others.” 

Megens managed to keep his eating disorder secret for a long time. He would eat in the evening, so his family wouldn’t notice. He had some specific requests, though. “I never wanted gravy over my food and a stew made me nervous,” he remembers. Later, he asked his parents to only serve him vegetables and potatoes, so he knew exactly how much he was eating. “I told them I didn't like it otherwise and nobody asked about it.”


Ilias, 24, had an eating disorder for years before even realising it. (He asked to use an alias so he could share his story more freely.) Because he was struggling with other mental health issues at the time, when he was about 16, he doubted he had an eating disorder. He was treating his ADHD with Ritalin, a drug also often used by people with eating disorders to feel less hungry. On top of that, he later started using more and more drugs at parties, like MDMA, because he was in a bad place. “I went out almost every week and sometimes twice a week,” he says. “And then I wasn't really hungry for half the week.” Eventually, he lost a lot of weight.

His girlfriend at the time made him realise something was off. “She told me I wasn’t taking good care of myself," he says. “Not to criticise me, but out of concern. I was surprised because I thought I was just too fat, but her comment made me realise it wasn’t about that.”

Maurice Kaasjager, 16, also experienced doubts about his self-image at an early age. “My brothers often made jokes about my weight,” he says. “They didn't do that to hurt me, but it stayed in my head.” His sister has a heart defect and his other brother has autism, so he was always the child who was supposed to be fine. "We didn’t talk much about our feelings at home, because we were always in a kind of survival mode,” he explains. 


He often compared his body to others' and decided to work out in order to look more like them. “At first, I did innocent things like swapping sodas and sweets for water and exercising more,” he adds. “But then I ended up not eating anything at all on some days." 

Kaasjager's parents noticed his eating habits were changing and took him to a dietician. “I didn't stick to the nutrition plan I got from her, because it gave me a kick to skip meals,” he says. “It sounds weird, but it felt good to have a goal - not eating - and achieve it. In reality, it only resulted in misery, but I didn't realise that at the time.” He saw food as his enemy and on some days, he didn't eat anything at all.

Ilias too is familiar with negative comments and “jokes”. He has family in Turkey, so he used to visit them every summer. And each year, he faced the same comments about his weight, whether he gained it or lost it. “I found it nasty that people were paying so much attention to my weight,” he says. “And no matter how thin I was, their comments made me start thinking of myself as fat.” 

At home, his parents would often give their opinions on his appearance without asking. “Sometimes it was about my body, which they thought I should work on, other times they didn't like my hair or clothes,” he says. It even happened that strangers made comments about his body. "An unknown woman came up to me in a bar,” he remembers. “She felt my arms and said, ‘You should go to the gym more often and gain weight.’” 


In fact, the relationship between sports and eating disorders is complicated among men, and in very different ways than with women. As the male standard of beauty has become more and more muscular and sculpted, many guys feel the pressure to be buff. “The trend where men are rigid about their bodies and sports worries me too," Plasmeijer sighs. Kaasjager confirms this: “We want to be big and are willing to exercise to achieve that.” During the pandemic, he could no longer play football and it affected his headspace, but it also had to do with the sudden absence of social contact and routine.  

That loss of a routine in daily life can fuel an eating disorder, too. According to Plasmeijer, the COVID crisis is a good example of this. “During that period, there was a lot of silence, emptiness and loneliness,” she says. “As a result, old traumas can resurface, and people deal with that in different ways. Some start exercising or dieting more, others eat a lot or very little. An eating disorder can fill the void at such times.”

Megens experienced a similarly challenging period in 2015, when he moved from his hometown in the south of the Netherlands to Amsterdam to study. “In Limburg, I thought I had control over my life, partly due to a certain routine, but also because I exercised a lot and paid close attention to what I ate,” he explains. “It sounds crazy, but the eating disorder also gave me a certain peace of mind.”


In Amsterdam, his life became less structured: no more school every day, more partying, and also less working out. Even though he kind of liked it, things went wrong: “It made my eating disorder worse, because I was trying to seize back control.”

No matter the triggers, all three interviewees linked their eating disorder to society’s definition of masculinity. "People often act as if eating disorders are women's diseases, while I think many men struggle with this too,” Kaasjager argues. “Few men tell their stories because they’re ashamed. We want to be tougher, less vulnerable." 

Ilias also didn’t feel like he could talk about his struggle with his family and friends. “Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space to talk about it,” he says. “In the eyes of many people, a man has to be strong, both mentally and physically.” As a man, Megen adds, you feel you can’t admit you’re vulnerable, “or that you care about your appearance”. 

One day in 2026, while visiting his parents, he read an article about someone with an eating disorder. "Although the story was about a woman, I recognised everything she described,” he says. “I looked at my mom and said, 'Mum, this is exactly what I struggle with.” His parents tried to be understanding and support their son, but it was hard for them to grasp. “In their eyes, I was handsome and social, got good grades and had a nice life in Amsterdam,” Megens says.

Hhis friends were also surprised when he finally opened up to them. “They told me: ‘If a woman showed the same behaviour as you, we would definitely have noticed,’” he says. “That made some friends feel guilty, but I don't blame anyone. For a very long time, I couldn’t even identify it myself." 

Megens ended up going to therapy about three or four times a week, where he finally felt understood. “I remember my therapist asking me: 'There are many things you like but don't do anymore because of your eating disorder. What would you like to do again?'”, he said. “The first thing I thought of was swimming. I burst into tears, because it’s something I have always loved."

Ilias, on the other hand, left his parents’ house about four years ago because he “didn’t need that negativity”, as he put it. They still talk, and he’s been doing well for the past three years, but he never sought help for his eating disorder. “I’ve seen a therapist, but found that cultural differences often made me feel misunderstood." 

Megens did end up asking his loved ones for help and isn’t in therapy anymore, but has a lot of compassion for the people who haven’t been able to take that step. “I would like to say to those men: ‘Please do it,’” he said. “Because the longer you wait, the harder it becomes to get out of it.”