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Consumed by Food : Many Men Suffer From Eating Disorders, but Shame, Stereotypes Can Keep Their Conditions Undetected and Untreated, O.C. Medical Experts Say

August 31, 1993|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For 25 years, Reid Hausch was an addict. Constantly bingeing on sweets, he could inhale a half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting. All over the house he hid his chocolate and peppermint candy "fixes," attempting to conceal from his family how much he was eating. This overeating took its toll. For 2 1/2 decades, his 5-foot-10 frame carried from 195 to 240 pounds.

Today Hausch, 50, of Costa Mesa, understands something he wasn't aware of during those years. As a compulsive overeater, he was suffering from a disorder that other men also experienced.

"Unlike women, who generally count every pound, men are not that conscious about their weight as a group. They can always rationalize and justify, patting their stomach, blaming it on beer and laughing," says Hausch, who is now a steady 155 pounds and counsels others with eating disorders.

While female eating disorders continue to hold the media's attention and keep physicians and mental health professionals busy, many male eating disorders have gone almost undetected and unrecognized.

It's estimated that 10% of the 4 million anorexics and bulimics in the United States are male. An even greater percentage of the 10 million people who have binge eating disorders are male, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Many experts feel that the number of males with eating disorders is actually underreported and that the disease's incidence is increasing for men. Dr. Barton Blinder, clinical professor and director of eating disorder research in the department of psychiatry at UC Irvine College of Medicine, says that in the last 10 years, an increasing number of serious male cases have been reported.

One group that has increasingly shown signs of developing eating disorders are men in the 55 to 60 age range, says Blinder. "Some of these men develop an eating disorder after a health scare associated with heart disease or an emotional trauma such as the loss of a spouse," he says. "In other cases, the men are somewhat narcissistic and afraid of aging; controlling their eating is an attempt at preserving youth."

Males with eating disorders often go undetected because of the shame and embarrassment they feel over not being able to control their eating, says Diane Kedy, an Irvine registered dietitian who specializes in working with people with eating disorders.

"Men see the problem as a woman's disease, and society reinforces this stereotype," she says. "Open up just about any women's magazine and you'll find information on dieting, compared to men's magazines, which focus on keeping fit and sports."

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For years, Frank Whitaker, 24, a psychology student who lives in Laguna Hills, hid his eating disorders, which ran the gamut from compulsive overeating to bulimia and even anorexic behavior. Over 10 years time, he fluctuated between 144 and 230 pounds. At his heaviest he was very obese for his 5-foot-6 frame.

When Whitaker joined the military and entered boot camp, he did extra exercises and ate very little. "The other guys would say, 'You need to eat,' but I just told them I was watching my weight," he says. During that time, he lost more than 30 pounds, which he gained back 12 weeks out of boot camp after a period of bingeing.

"Your behavior is very shaming and secretive," he says. "I would buy a large pizza and a pecan pie at a restaurant and tell the person that I was having company, when I was really going home to eat the pizza alone." He also hid the fact that at one point he was on diet powders and even became addicted to diet pills.

Men with eating disorders often do a good job of concealing their problem from co-workers, friends and even spouses and children, says Blinder, who in addition to his work at UC Irvine also has a private practice in Newport Beach and has treated many males with eating disorders.

There is not a lot of discussion of male eating disorders because for men, overeating especially is looked upon as an amusing indulgence.

Whether they're laughing outwardly or not, the truth is men with eating disorders are living the life of an addict. Eating disorders typically follow the same pattern as alcoholism and drug abuse.

"I'd be in control of my eating for a while and would be losing weight, but then I'd go on a really bad binge," says Whitaker. "The binge would be followed by a resolution to never do that again, but the pattern would just repeat itself."

Like drug addicts and alcohol abusers, those with eating disorders are also plagued by a sense of incompetence and failure. "Even when I got down to a normal weight at times, I saw myself as the biggest, fattest slob in the world," says Whitaker.

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