Q: I broke up with my boyfriend a few months ago and began dating someone new. I love my new boyfriend, and he is in amazing shape. But here’s the problem: My ex-boyfriend has suddenly started to lose a dramatic amount of weight, and our mutual friends tell me that he never eats and is always at the gym. I am worried that he is trying to change his body because my new boyfriend sports a six-pack. Can men really develop eating disorders, and if so, how can I help him?
A: Although we don’t hear much about it, men can (and do) develop eating disorders. When we think about eating disorders and body-image issues, we often think about women and young girls. Yet over one million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, and many more men are developing a disorder known as exercise bulimia (in which an individual exercises to excess to burn calories and prevent weight gain). The problem with this behavior is that it might seem healthy from the outside: After all, we are always encouraged by our doctors to get active and exercise. Exercise bulimics, however, take it to a very unhealthy level and risk severe injury by pushing their bodies to such extremes.
To your specific question, it sounds to me like your ex-boyfriend might indeed be suffering from an eating disorder. However, with limited information, it is impossible to say for sure. You mention that your new boyfriend has a great body, and if your ex-boyfriend is a little heavier or not as toned, he might feel a twinge of jealousy and insecurity that is causing him to hit the gym a little more often. Maybe he thinks that if he had a better body you would want him back, or maybe he thinks that the reason you left him is because he doesn’t measure up to your aesthetic standards.
Whatever the case, I think talking with him is a good idea, provided that you two still have a good relationship. If you haven’t spoken since your breakup, then he might not be ready to have such an intimate conversation with you, and in that case I advise you to ask a mutual friend instead to give him a helping hand. Let the friend know that you are worried about him and that you are hearing rumors that alarm you, and ask whether he or she is willing to keep an eye on him and have a talk with him about his new habits.
If you are still close, then I think you and he are definitely due for a sit-down. Choose a time when you two can be alone, and start off by letting him know how much you still care about him and how much you value his friendship. Let him know that he was a great boyfriend and that your breakup had nothing to do with his size. Say something like, “I notice you have working out a lot lately and skipping meals. You always had a great body, and I was always attracted to you while we were together. I just wanted to make sure you knew that and that you aren’t doing anything dangerous or unhealthy.”
Then, let him talk. And make sure that you listen — really listen — to what he has to say. If he admits that he is in trouble or if he seems in denial about his issues, you could suggest he check out a resource like the National Eating Disorders Association or a book such as The Invisible Man: A Self-help Guide for Men With Eating Disorders, Compulsive Exercise and Bigorexia by John F. Morgan.
— Dr. Laura Berman
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