Dear Chase: Does My Boyfriend Have an Eating Disorder?
Chase Bannister is the founder, senior vice president and chief strategy & clinical integrity officer for Veritas Collaborative, a specialty hospital system for the treatment of eating disorders in a gender-diverse and inclusive environment. He is credentialed as a certified eating disorder specialist by the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals and is a licensed clinical social worker. Chase combines clinical and executive expertise to nurture a spirit of meaningful collaboration and carries a zeal for advancing public awareness on eating disorders.
My boyfriend seems really concerned about his appearance and is afraid of looking unfit. It's like he works out all the time now. Should I be worried and if there's something wrong, what can I do?
First, thank you for expressing concern about your boyfriend. It’s so important to speak up and ask questions when you are worried about a friend’s health and wellbeing.
Unfortunately, we are bombarded with images and messages in our society that suggest there is an ideal body shape and size. As a result, many people struggle with body image concerns and turn to physical activity as a way to change their shape and control their weight. For some, physical activity and related behaviors that are often viewed as healthy may get out of control.
You may want to suggest that your boyfriend speak to a mental health professional if he is experiencing or has recently experienced any of the following:
- Significant weight change: If your boyfriend has gained or lost more than 10% of his body weight in the past few months, this paired with other symptoms can be a sign that something is wrong.
- Psychological distress about the way his body looks: You mentioned that your boyfriend is afraid of looking unfit. If he pays consistent attention to his perceived flaws, if his weight and the way his clothes fit impact his mood on a regular basis or if you notice changes in his social interaction because of the way he thinks he looks, you should suggest that he seek support from a mental health professional.
- Changes in the way he eats: Your boyfriend may be experiencing disordered eating if he has rigid food rules, is restricting or bingeing, has anxiety about food making him fat or he has foods that he can and cannot eat. Disordered eating can be a symptom of a mental health problem.
- Exercise as an obligation: Physical activity can be healthy for the body. However, there could be reason for concern when exercise becomes a “have to” instead of a “want to” type of activity, when someone experiences guilt and anxiety because they missed a workout, when their strict adherence to working out begins to affect their daily lives in a negative way or when exercise is used to compensate for the food they eat.
The idea that working out can be unhealthy is counterculture. Many people receive positive feedback from friends, family and even medical providers when they lose weight or adhere to a regular exercise program. Most people don’t realize that when exercise and eating get out of balance, a person’s health can be compromised. Talk about your concerns with your boyfriend and encourage him to speak with a mental health professional or medical practitioner if he feels he is losing control over his eating and exercise habits.
And remember: bodies come in all shapes and sizes. It’s important for all of us to appreciate our bodies for the strengths and abilities that they have!
For additional resources, check out these tips on how to talk to a friend who may be struggling with an eating disorder and this fact sheet about the symptoms and health consequences of compulsive exercise.