The Death Zone–A Look at The Rise of Anorexia Nervosa in Men

Body checking. Compulsive over-exercising. Weighing and measuring food. Secrecy. Starvation. You are about to enter the death zone. The narrow and obsessive-compulsive world of the anorexic male, where control, perfectionism and self-loathing rule.

How does this happen? How can anyone, male or female choose to intentionally starve himself or herself to death? The answer is extremely complex, as are the men and women who struggle with this mystifying illness. But today more that ever, there is a need to recognize and expand treatment facilities for the eating disordered male.

Most suffer alone. Most don’t go for treatment, and many are dying. Here’s a look into the death zone.

Doug was 21. He dropped out of college because he couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t keep his grades up, and rarely went out of his apartment. At 6’2’ he weighted 120 pounds. He was pale and gaunt. With his blank eyes, jutting hip bones and indented stomach, he looked more like a poster for a child refuge camp than a college student.  He knew he was emaciated but he couldn’t break out of the death zone.

Jason was 27. His struggle with food began when he was 12. He fit the typical profile for the male anorexic: anxious, obsessive, perfectionistic and extremely self-disciplined. He was fat as a kid and was teased unmercifully. That all changed when he discovered an on-line site for anorexia. He never looked back. He was surviving on an apple a day. Hospitalized 10 times, he still measures his food, gets uptight when he goes to restaurants, and seldom goes out socially.

With promising new information on brain neurobiology coming out all the time, clinicians are learning a great deal more about how a particular area in the brains gray matter called the insula, may be responsible for missed satiety cues in anorexics. An over abundance of the stress hormone norepinephrine is thought to cause the fight or flight signals in the brain to stay “turned on|” keeping the anorexic in a state of continual hyper arousal.

Treating an anorexic is difficult. Causes for the disorder are multifaceted and treatment can last for years. This is a life threatening illness where people die.

Many anorexics will tell you they didn’t start out obsessing about their body. It wasn’t about the food either. For some, it’s about controlling something in a life that feels out of control. For others, it’s about belonging when they feel insecure. And for others still,  it’s about proving something to themselves and the people around them.

Restricting is exhilarating in the beginning and brings with it the satisfaction of doing something others can’t. But in the end it becomes the monster controlling and debilitating the life of those who suffer.

The anorexic’s world gets more and more narrow until he sees nothing but himself. Food becomes a terrifying thought— and eating even more so. Recovery is a long uphill climb; a moment-by-moment battle. Most never get over feeling fat. Some learn to live with it; others continue their rituals to keep their anxiety at bay.

Several things can indicate help is necessary before the disorder progresses:

  1. Distorted thinking
  2. Overexercising
  3. Changes in eating patterns
  4. Obsessive Thoughts
  5. Preoccupation with food or body image
  6. Anxiety or Depression


Much is still left to learn about anorexia, and treatment for males in particular requires ongoing research. But one thing is for certain in both male and female populations, the desire for social acceptance, love and belonging a are large part of the underlying cause.

If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, seek professional help. Below is a list of treatment facilities that currently treat males with eating disorders.



Rita A. Schulte is a licensed professional counselor in the Northern Virginia/DC area. She is the host of Heartline Podcast and Consider This. Rita writes for numerous publications and blogs. Her articles have appeared in Counseling Today Magazine, Thriving Family Magazine, Kyria and Living Better at 50. Her book on moving through the losses of life will be released in the Fall 2013 by Leafwood Publishers. Follow her at, on FB and twitter @heartlinepod. Her blog, Life Talk Today is




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