- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

Dennis Henning forced himself to vomit 30 times a day and took up to 80 laxatives after every meal. Michael Chen did 150 sit-ups and 110 pushups and 100 deep knee bends daily to get his weight to 100 pounds.

There could be a million American men like them.

People think of those with eating disorders as upper-middle-class white girls pressured into thinness by ballet or gymnastics and a need to feel "perfect." People think of anorexia and bulimia as the afflictions of models and professional pretty women.

Think again. According to research, it's a disorder that is crossing racial and economic lines. Many of those who succumb to compulsive starving or binge eating are male.

The Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center says up to 10 million Americans struggle with compulsive eating today, and 10 percent are male. The Harvard Eating Disorders Center puts the total at 5 million and says that includes 3 percent of women and 1 percent of men.

The National Institutes of Health report that whatever the total of all eating disorders, of those with anorexia, one in 10 will ultimately die of starvation, suicide or medical complications such as heart attacks or kidney failure.

The Harvard center says boys who participate in "elite competitive sports where body shape and size are a factor" gymnastics, ice skating, crew, dance and wrestling are at increased risk. It also finds, in a study of children aged 8 to 10, that half the girls and a third of the boys are dissatisfied with their size.

A difference: The girls wanted to be thinner while the boys wanted to be heavier. Says the center, "Boys wanted to grow into their bodies, whereas girls were more worried about their bodies growing."

The American Psychological Association points out: "In a society that continues to prize thinness even as Americans become heavier than ever before, almost everyone worries about their weight at least occasionally. People with eating disorders take such concerns to extremes."

Mr. Henning, 38, of the Lifestyle Institute for Eating Disorders in Port Hueneme, Calif., says: "Just 5 to 10 percent of the people I work with have athletic backgrounds. And that's just in their backgrounds, I don't mean professional athletes. Besides, tell me a job that has no emphasis on looks."

Mr. Henning, a onetime model and ex-bulimic who says he was a compulsive overeater for 22 years, contends that "someone with an eating disorder uses food as medicine for emotional pain."

He explains: "Food was my best friend, and my poison. The one thing I turned to make me feel better was the one thing that betrayed me on a daily basis. Every time I would binge and purge, it was like Novocain to me. It numbed everything I was dealing with."

Jack Nelson Soll, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who counsels on eating disorders, thinks food is sometimes used to regulate intimacy.

"If a man or a woman has been abused, and they can't use words, then they've got to make a boundary. Purging for a bulimic is a metaphor for purging they can't do some other way. Compulsive eating can modulate intimacy and control sex," he says.

"The illusion is weight will keep members of the opposite sex away. If I can't say no, be assertive or set boundaries, I may need to have my weight serve that function."

The Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center's Internet hot line at www.edreferral.com provides a banquet of eating stories from men trying to recover from the problem.

For "Bob," in an account titled "Escape from the Hamburger," eating was both an escape and a bondage: "I became obsessed with food in every way imaginable: showing off how many McDonald's hamburgers I could eat at one sitting (seven), demonstrating my iron stomach by downing a whole bottle of lemon juice, trying to get attention by eating unshelled hard-boiled eggs in front of a crowd of people, baking several loaves of bread then eating it all even when the recipe failed."

Mr. Henning says that men, especially heterosexual men, don't tend to take binge eating as seriously as women and homosexual men.

"Men joke about it," he says, "because, societally, it's more condoned for them. They use food to hide out and create an issue on which they can focus… .

"They compensate because they're overweight, and they're overweight because they overeat, and they overeat because they have underlying core issues that have not yet been fully addressed," he said.

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