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  • Santiago Pérez

More Canadian men dying to be thin

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

Paul Gallant’s advocacy, coaching and research with males who have eating disorders contributed to national awareness through this TV news documentary.

Warning: sensitive content.

The face of eating disorders is changing.

Nearly 30 years ago, the world watched as singer Karen Carpenter wasted away before our eyes. We’ve known about eating disorders for decades. But now, as 16:9 The Bigger Picture, Global News’ current affairs program uncovers in an upcoming special presentation, more and more men and boys are also struggling with disorders that make food the enemy and every day a fight to survive.

Today, eating disorders are the most deadly of all the mental disorders. One in every five anorexics will die. And male sufferers are a demographic that’s getting worse instead of better.

Andrew Johnson is one of those male sufferers. It’s been two years since the 19 year old Ontario man was released from hospital. Still, he’s not ready to use the word “recovery.”

“The eating disorder is still there,” he told 16:9. “It still taunts me. It’s a voice and it terrorizes me and it makes me believe the strangest things.”

The disease crept quietly into Andrew’s life when he was 13 years old. An out-going student with a passion for theatre, Andrew was the class clown. But he was bullied for being heavier than the other kids.

“They would say, “˜It looks like you’re pregnant,’ and “˜You have boobs.’ I was always the weird kid,” he told 16:9. “I wanted to escape from that image and I didn’t know how.”

So Andrew started skipping meals, throwing out food and exercising obsessively. As his disorder progressed, he started making himself throw up until he was bingeing and purging several times a day.

Though his family tried to help, Andrew soon became completely emaciated. He couldn’t even keep down a glass of water. When he was finally admitted to hospital, doctors said his potassium levels were so low he might have a heart attack. Andrew weighed just over 100 pounds.

What’s perhaps more startling than Andrew’s struggle is how common it’s become. Paul Gallant is a Certified Health Executive and PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia who studies men with eating disorders. He told 16:9 a surprising number of Canadian men are suffering from the disease and their numbers are on the rise.

“Over the past five to ten years… instead of the 5-10% of cases of eating disorders being in males… now it’s about about 25-33%,” Gallant said. “If we look at the entire population of Canada, up to about 800 000 males have struggled with an eating disorder at some point in their life.”

And many of those men are suffering in silence. In part because, for men, it’s a disorder with a double stigma. Not only is it thought of as a woman’s disease, but if it strikes a man, most assume he must be gay. Gallant told 16:9 that’s not true.

“Less than 50% of the persons who are male with eating disorders are gay,” he said.

True or not, the assumption makes it even more difficult for some men to find the courage to ask for help. And when they do, their cries for help aren’t always well-received. In one focus group Gallant led, 60% of the men who went looking for help couldn’t find it.

“One quote that sticks in my mind very strongly,” Gallant told 16:9, “Is their family doctor told them “˜No, men don’t have eating disorders so what are you talking about?”

Though the disease left its mark, Andrew is one of the lucky ones. He found treatment and though he knows this is one disease that never really goes away, he’s on the mend

“It’s not that I’m completely 100%,” he told 16:9, “But it’s not controlling my life. I’m the driver.”

For more on how eating disorders are treated in Canada and why some parents say our system let them down, watch 16:9 The Bigger Picture’s special presentation “Dying to be Thin” on Saturday, February 26.

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