Emotional Eating in Men and Boys

Since I started the original Normal Eating Support Group in 2002, only a tiny fraction of members have been men – well under 1%. And those few men who joined have never stuck around. In contrast, many of our female members have been active participants for years. (I’m very grateful to those who have found recovery and stay to help newcomers.)

When I developed the Normal Eating logo with the silhouette of a woman, a member wrote to me and said I shouldn’t use that because it will make men feel less welcome. I considered her point, but men weren’t joining the forum anyway, so I just went with it.

Recently I did a Web search on emotional eating in men and it’s generally thought that men constitute just 10% of emotional eaters. But I’m not sure I believe this. I wonder if men are just less likely to admit it. I had an experience today that reinforced this idea.

BookExpo America is underway this week, and I’ve been attending because of my book, Normal Eating for Normal Weight. At one of the panels yesterday, I got into a conversation with the man sitting next to me. When I told him the title of my book, he started talking about his own eating and life. He struggles with the same issues we talk about in the forum. I gave him a copy of my book. (You can’t go to a book show without lugging around copies of your book.) Today I ran into him again on the show floor and he thanked me – said the book was helpful to him.

There are just as many men with weight problems as women. It seems unlikely to me that for men it’s mostly a question of bad eating habits and lack of knowledge about nutrition. If losing weight were that simple and straightforward for men – just bone up on nutrition and change some bad habits – there would not be any fat men.

I know there is greater pressure on women in this culture to look a certain way, but men feel pressure about appearance, too. And while women are the traditional caretakers, men also can get into this role, taking care of others feelings and needs to their own detriment. Perhaps the main difference is that men don’t want to tell anyone what’s going on. It’s not manly to admit it.

I wish that Normal Eating could do a better job at reaching out to men who struggle with emotional eating – eating when you’re not hungry, cyclical dieting that never works, blaming yourself for failure, etc.

I’d love to hear from men who struggle with emotional eating. Why the cone of silence? What is the best way to help? Or maybe you know a man (or boy) who struggles with this?

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

36 thoughts on “Emotional Eating in Men and Boys

  1. Yup. My husband, for one, will eat whatever is available if he is stressed. He never gets very heavy and the extra weight usually leaves once he feels better, but there it is. His father, who didn’t have enough to eat during the depression, is clearly stressed about food. He squirrels away candy bars so that he always has one no-one else knows about, and often starts eating his dinner when other people are not yet at the table.

    In his book, Kessler says he is a chronic overeater, but doesn’t explore the emotionsl component.

    I wonder if a separate Men’s forum wouldn’t be more attractive to Men? Their triggers might often be different to some extent too, less, for example, about body image, and more about eating to soothe stress or hostile self-talk…

    There is a Men’s group called “Mankind Project” that helps men get in touch with their feelings while maintaining their sense of masculinity. Their membership might be a helpful source for learning more about Men’s needs in addressing this issue.

  2. Thanks for your feedback. You bring up another important point: it’s biologically easier for men to lose weight than women. Women tend to retain fat as extra insurance because they bear children. The extreme difficulty women have in losing weight may increase the emotional element of the problem for them. Men can be stressed out, eat, and then lose the weight quickly when they stop overeating. Women don’t lose the weight as quickly or easily when overeating stops.

    I came across the Mankind Project when I was googling about this recently, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at that. I’ll look again.

    A separate forum for men is an interesting idea, but wouldn’t that mean a male moderator, too? I haven’t been working with men on Normal Eating at all, so there’s no candidate to do this.

  3. It is an interesting phenomenon, and it occurs in OA as well. A very small proportion of men compared to women, however in other recovery circles I hear men talking of their tendency to emotionally eat especially when they have let go of other substances but very few of them seem to seek outside assistance for it, maybe they see it as a “woman’s” problem and don’t want to identify it openly.

    I have three men in my family who emotionally eat & a close male friend, one gave OA a go but found the lack of male identification difficult and left, and they all now know about NE but don’t seem highly motivated to join! It might be interesting to explore it further with them. They don’t seem at all motivated by the fear weight gain, or certainly not in the way that that prospect grips me with fear and tends to initially motivate me to find a solution. I think you are right in saying the cultural pressures on men are different, and maybe it moderates the way men experience the problem?

    Again another great topic.

    Annie~

  4. Sheryl, I think the lack of “sharing feelings” to start with maybe part of the reason and I do think since they can have a bit of a tummy and no one cares and they can take it off in a few days, it all makes it less of an issue. Also, I disagree with the idea that women are “taught” to be the care takers. Yes, society expects it, but women release oxcytocin and other “glue” and “bonding” hormones that cause them to “care” for others. It’s science and fighting it would be futile and children, especially, need a lot of care. However, I think women need to demand the respect they deserve (which may or may not mean that they will get it) and make good boundaries to help. Self care needs to be a priority.
    Cathy

  5. Cathy, you’re right about the bonding hormones. It happens to women after giving birth, and also after sex (which explains a lot).

    The implication from what you’re saying is that men aren’t emotional eaters. But if that’s true, why, then, can’t they just lose weight? No muss, no fuss, done? I don’t think there’s any difference in the obesity rates of men and women. Men are not any more successful in this than women are.

    You could say they don’t care so they don’t try, but I don’t think that’s true, either. Most men probably care less about their weight than most women, but I think most still care and I know they try to lose – more often through working out than diets. Well, maybe that’s why – exercise alone won’t take weight off you. But I don’t think that’s it, either.

    I think men have their own brand of emotional eating. I’ve known men with very serious weight problems who were without question emotional eaters. Maybe fewer men are emotional eaters than women, but I don’t think it’s as low as some of the stats I’ve read.

    Maybe if we talk about them enough, some men will jump in and set us straight. 🙂

  6. I think it’s not so black and white. I think the fact is that this IS more a women’s issue simply by numbers. How many overweight men do you see compared to women? Sure there are some, but not nearly as many as women (at least where I’m from anyway).

    I think men can DEFINITELY be emotional overeaters. My friend for one suffered from severe depression all his life and emotionally ate and watched movies at night to distract himself from his ‘failure at life.’ He would also do other things like play the guitar for hours and sit on the internet until he could no longer deny that it was time for bed (in the wee hours), and thus resign himself to the ‘failure’ of another day of being unable to do anything productive.

    I also know 2 gay men in a relationship and they are both a bit chubby and love to chow down. I know for sure that one is emotional about it, and the other I’ve a hunch, is just a happy overeater (just like he’s a happy dope smoker). lol But look at all the back issues…lots of gay people have had a hard time of it from their parents, etc, so there’s def cause for emotional issues.

    So, it’s not whether it’s completely a man/woman issue…I still think it’s more a women’s issue. Just look at the numbers on this forum. Maybe men don’t like to admit it, so that would contribute to the numbers, but really, I’d think there’d at least be a few more if it was equally their problem.

    And I do agree…even if they emotionally overeat, they don’t gain weight so quickly, they seem to ‘hold’ it better, and lose it faster! NO FAIR!! *^^*

  7. A man – self-described emotional eater – responded to this post in an email message. He asked me to post his message for him, but I’m hoping he’ll post it himself. I’ll wait for a bit, and if not I’ll post it.

  8. I am a man who has been struggling with overeating issues for years. I’ve been around OA 15 years. Sometimes in, sometimes out. Never really feeling ‘included’ in the process, and always a bit of an outsider. I have explored many areas to try to beat this thing. OA, CEA-HOW, FAA, RFA, and on and on. I’ve even been to a semi formal ‘live in’ facility for a few days to supposedly straighten my food addiction around. The ‘theory’ at this great place is that we’re addicted to sugar, flour, and carbs.

    I have felt very very isolated around most all these programs/efforts. Pretty much a complete absense of men. However, I do have one male friend, Earl, who is from Connecticut, and has lost close to 200 pounds using a no sugar, no carb, no wheat food plan—a plan similar to FAA or CEA HOW foodplan.

    Where are the other guys? Guess they’re just dropping away with heart attacks, as there seems to be a total unwilllingness to address overeating/overweight issues and problems. Hardly even thru a ‘diet’ mentality. Anybody who has really looked thoroughly and hard at the ‘obesity epidemic’ knows that ‘diets dont work’ right???

    If there are any women reading this blog who have a husband or male relative or friend trying to lose weight or address obesity type issues, please consider pointing them to Normal Eating, or to programs such as OA. It may be a ‘hard pill to swallow’ but if a change of habits results, you have just saved this person so much. Including potential problems such as diabetes, blood pressure problems, heart problems, self esteem dysfunction, etc etc ad nauseum. Take it from somebody who knows first hand.

    Sheryl, I think you do a fantastic service to people and wish you the very best. Wish I could figure out a way to get more men involved. But I have a life and am not ready to be an unlistened to crusader on this life threatening issue.

    By the way. My ‘denial’ mechanism is very strong. Thanks to my lucky stars or whatever coincidences, I am not showing high cholesterol, blood pressure, bad knees, hips, diabetes, heart condition etc etc that silently comes along with extra weight. But I could easily wake up (or NOT!!!) tomorrow morning with one or more of these symptoms. This is my first post EVER !!! I hope it isn’t my last, and I sincerely hope that Somebody reads this and somehow their behavior changes.

  9. My dad is a true compulsive overeater, and was actively bulimic for many years. He is obese, but that isn’t what causes him the most pain. He is often ashamed of having “lost it” with food, and is forever trying self-help books and various extreme diets (he actually went for weeks eating nothing but produce). I would not mention the NE forum to him for obvious reasons, but he just about wrote the book on the shame/eat/shame spiral. I have tried talking to him about some of the ideas in NE, but I think he has to find his giving-up point and he’s not there yet.

  10. Wanted to thank Maxx for his post. Very, very insightful.

    I also think that maybe being over-weight is in itself feminizing for some men. For instance they become “soft” like the traditional description of women. Some carry excessive weight over their pectoral muscles which can take the form of man-boobs (sorry if that’s crude, I don’t know how else to describe it). On top of the difficulty of expressing emotions, doing it with a bunch of women might be the icing on the cake.

    Just thinking out loud here.

  11. > I also think that maybe being over-weight is in itself feminizing for some men.

    That’s interesting, because I’ve always thought the opposite. Big is masculine and small is feminine, so it’s harder for women to be big, and more acceptable for men. It’s always seemed to me that skinny, underweight men get more grief than fat men. For women, it’s the opposite. Tiny is feminine.

  12. I think I meant it more like this:
    Fat is the opposite of muscle. So for men–and I’m guessing here–fat is feminine (especially in certain areas) and muscle is masculine. Sure, being tiny is feminine too and small men often try to gain weight (in the form of gaining muscle) to become more masculine. I don’t know any small men who would want to put on weight in the form of fat to be muscular but instead the emphasis is on “bulking up”.

    Sorry to any men reading this who think I’m talking out of my head!

  13. I’ve been in OA for nearly 20 years and the absence of men has always saddened me. As a tried and true compulsive overeater, formerly 330 lbs with nearly 200 lb weight loss through “abstinence” alone (ie. no gastric surgery) — I can identify another food addict in the dark… And many are men. Well beyond 10%! It might be true that being overweight implies less social reprecussions for men — resulting in the delayed onset of emotional/psychological consequences inherent to addictive eating — but eventually their pain is just as intense as women’s. Self loathing is an equal opportunity killer.

    Yet, the fact is that a female dominated environment can be oppressive to men when it comes time for them to talk about their feelings and experiences. Imagine how hard it is for me to talk about how my obesity has affected the appearnace of my body — I always scan the room for men before giving such details.

    What crucial feelings must men be withholding when they need to talk in a meeting? And realistically, we know that the ability to stop hiding and be honest is the most important aspect of recovery. So no wonder many men drop out of food-focused 12 step programs, or never go to more than a few meetings. Or struggle with cyclical recovery and relapse. It’s important to be within a community and become one of many. These are tried and true principles of 12-step recovery, but they can be applied outside of 12 step, too.

    In NYC, OA has 2 men’s meetings that I am aware of. Women are welcome but they’re for men, really. And they deserve them.

  14. Hello Sheryl,

    I am new to this website but not to the idea of Normal Eating. Although I haven’t “started” NE yet and that already tells you the issue because I am regarding it like a diet, like something that is either turned off or on.

    Anyway, I would like to comment on this post because my overweight husband is also an emotional eater. He knows it, too, and will acknowledge it when we speak about this subject. However, he still prefers dieting as a means of losing weight and getting healthier. This way he can treat it as a “project”, with a goal that he can work towards. That’s how he has become very successful in his professional life, he sets goal and he achieves them. He knows that this approach does not address the roots of his emotional eating and in the past he has always put the weight back on, and then some. He is on a diet again but this time I perceive subtle differences. I still observe the “manly” iron determination, but also an increased interest in nutrition, and an awareness of emotional triggers and a desire to deal with them in ways other than eating. AND listening to his body more, his hunger and full signals. But rather than women who enjoy the social aspect of sharing and resolving common issues within a group, he prefers to go it alone.

    Just my two cents … 🙂

    Thank you,
    Kerstin

  15. Kerstin,

    But rather than women who enjoy the social aspect of sharing and resolving common issues within a group, he prefers to go it alone.

    I think you may have hit upon the key difference here. I have no doubt at all that men are emotional eaters in the same numbers that women are. But men do like to handle things on their own. You know that stereotype of how men will never ask for directions when they’re lost? I think it comes from the same thing. They think they need to handle problems on their own.

    That’s a distinct disadvantage with emotional eating. This is not a problem that’s easily handled without help. There’s too much self-deception involved. Most people need someone outside of them to give insights and perspectives.

  16. Hello Sheryl,

    I have been reading over the wealth of good advice and information on this site and came to this article. I want to give my two cents. Strickly my opinion.

    I believe that many men know that they have a problem with emotional overeating but are reluctant to express it openly. Why?

    I think it has to do with the role they have (or feel they have) in our society in general terms. To admit being controlled by anything can be embarassing and humiliating to us. Women must also have those feelings but I believe men are less willing to admit their feelings for fear of appearing weak.

    I have been searching for a way to receive help in a support group setting for a long time both on line and with OA. So far, I have not found any support groups with a significant number of males that I could truly relate to.

    My son struggled with alcoholism many years ago as an adolescent. As his father, I was advised to attend Alanon meetings for my own recovery. I went to so many Alanon support groups trying to feel “truly a part of the group” but could not connect with the other members who were mostly women talking about their alcoholic husbands.

    After about one year, I found a men’s Alanon group and what a difference it was for me. I was finally able to focus on “me” and not my son’s issues. The men in that group had a different way of communicating with each other. It was a great success for me and lead to some opportunities in self awareness I was never going to find in a “typical” Alanon meeting.

    I absolutely agree with you that there are just as many men troubled with unhealthy emotional eating problems as there are women. I know that I am one of them. I’ve struggled with overeating all my life and I am not what most would call a young man. You are never too old to learn and so I continue to try.

    I think that the Internet affords us the greatest opportunity to share and receive feedback because of the anonymity of it. I would feel very lucy if I could find a support group that was made up of at least a 50/50 mix of men and women. An all men’s group would be awesome but not realistic I suppose.

    The value of a support group is to keep me focused on “me” in order to change my awareness about my emotions, particularly as it pertains to my eating habits. But, like most (not all) men, I probably won’t go around telling my pals, “hey I’m into this really neat support group to help overcome my emotional eating problems.” Its just not the kind of conversations that most men get into.

    Its getting late as I write this and it just occurred to me that if I were not writting this, I would have been eating because my wife has gone to bed and thats what I do this time of night. Not bad. I think I will go right to bed now.

    Mike
    Columbus, Ohio

  17. Hi Sheryl,

    I’m a young male struggling with emotional eating. Here’s my perspective.

    * First off, let me say that I think this problem is pervasive in men. Pretty much any guy who exercises regularly and remains overweight, you can bet he has emotional eating/binge eating issues. I know a few guys like this, and see more like them at the gym all the time. However, this is not something any guy I know would admit to or discuss with others, even those with the same affliction.

    As you rightly pointed out, it’s not socially acceptable for men to seek help for any personal problem, really. Not appearing weak in any serious way is a primary driver for men, in my opinion. However, if it’s drugs or alcohol or gambling, it has become more or less acceptable to seek help at this point. Eating disorders have always been associated with women (even though they in fact may be more prevalent than people realize), however, so there’s that much more of a stigma on men to come out and admit it.

    The whole deal about having to “feel” your “feelings” and “loving yourself” as part of recovery is not exactly guy talk. I would much rather deal with this thing without going through all that, if possible.

    Another thing – I think that in the masculine/feminine perspective, it’s more ore less acceptable for women to venture into masculine territory in certain contexts (being more assertive, etc). But for a guy, dabbling in anything feminine is repulsive, and completely unacceptable socially. So admitting to any problem typically associated with women, or reading something clearly coming from a feminine foundation is… something they’d rather avoid.

    What to do about it? Personally, I was a little thrown off by the logo of a woman slimming down, and the purple-ish motif here. I still like what you have to say, but the overall design is not exactly gender-neutral. Now, since most of your site users are women it might make perfect sense to make them feel more at ease. But I can see that driving guys away.

    I’m just passing through though, so don’t feel the need to change anything on my account – but that’s my two cents.

  18. By the way, this post of yours is the first Google hit when searching for “emotional eating support for men”. 🙂

  19. >I was a little thrown off by the logo of a woman slimming down, and the purple-ish motif here. I still like what you have to say, but the overall design is not exactly gender-neutral. Now, since most of your site users are women it might make perfect sense to make them feel more at ease. But I can see that driving guys away.

    Yes, yes, I know! It was a mistake. Did you see the previous comment from Mike? I’ve been talking to him about this and other things, and I’m in the process of making many changes for men. One is already implemented: There is now a dedicated board in the Normal Eating Support Group just for men. Mike is a bit lonely there now with only me to talk to (and I am not a man). I’m hoping more will join as I add the more male-friendly features that I’m planning.

    It’s interesting what you said about the color theme. Mike didn’t mention that (he did mention the female silhouette), but I wondered if the colors also were too feminine. You’re confirming it.

    > The whole deal about having to “feel” your “feelings” and “loving yourself” as part of recovery is not exactly guy talk. I would much rather deal with this thing without going through all that, if possible.

    I think this is more a question of language – the way you talk about it. Men have feelings and self-esteem issues just like women, but they approach it differently – think about it differently, talk about it differently. Actually Normal Eating is pretty non-touchy-feely compared to other approaches. I’m not a very touchy-feely sentimental type myself. I think you’ll find that Normal Eating is quite plain-spoken and straight-forward.

    I am still learning about men and their specific issues around eating and body image. I am very interested in feedback from men. I would particularly love to get some male perspective to this blog post:

    http://normaleating.com/blog/2009/04/what-does-it-mean-to-you-to-be-thin/

    > I’m just passing through though, so don’t feel the need to change anything on my account – but that’s my two cents.

    I’m actually planning quite a few big changes, based on your feedback and feedback I’m getting from other men. So I hope you come back. Sign up for the newsletter – then you’ll get the news when the new features are ready. As I said, the closed section for men is already in the forum.

    > By the way, this post of yours is the first Google hit when searching for “emotional eating support for men”. 🙂

    Cool!! I’m very happy about that because I want to make this a more male-friendly site.

    – Sheryl

  20. Sorry you are just passing through man. I had pretty much the same kind of thoughts as you but liked Sheryl’s approach more than anything else I have read. Very direct and pointed. She has just opened a Forum for men on this site. I just started posting there and have already discovered some things that may help me change some life long eating problems.

  21. I hope you’ll bear with me through this as it’s late, I’m in a lot of physical pain, and I tend to ramble.

    Let me first introduce myself. I’m a 53-year old single (once divorced, never remarried, “divorce” is a legal-action, “single” is a state-of-being), heterosexual male.

    I’m a recovering drug addict. My recovery date is March 9, 1984. I used alcohol, amphetamines, marijuana, codeine, mescaline, LSD, etc., in relatively decreasing order of both amounts of use and length of use, beginning possible in utero when my mother may have used drugs during her pregnancy. When I was six, she had to go to work; so, my new baby-sitters taught me to drink (drunken babies go to sleep more quickly and stay asleep longer), to finish of the last of their cans of beer. They sat for her for 18 months, until I was 2. For 18 months, essentially, I was a daily drinker. To make a long story short, I got into recovery 25 years ago at 28, after two DUIs, a DUS, and other offenses over a 7 year period resulting in a 5-year revocation of my driving privileges for “habitual offender”. I went through treatment for 3 months at 10-13 months of recovery, had several different counselors with various levels of success, etc.

    I do a good imitation of an anorexic; well, I used to. Now, I’m having a problem with my weight. But, first back to my anorexia; I introduce it that way, “I do a good imitation . . .” because most of American society believes, incorrectly, that anorexia is predominately a “female problem”. It is not! I was fortunate early in recovery to read a book that identified male patterns of behavior leading to anorexia that is common among wrestlers (I was one) who want to lose weight to be more competitive to others who, like women, adopt abnormally thin role models and sacrifice their health to imitate those role models behaviors. In my neck of the woods, the most visible male anorexics (including some relatives) are cowboys, who often get up early to do chores, chew tobacco to suppress their morning appetites, yet are about as macho and uncommunicative as you can get. However, I would not suggest that you confront a skinny cowboy, horse-jockey, etc., and say “you’re anorexic.”

    North American males have a mixture, primarily, of two cultures with conflicting concepts of behavior, a primarily “English-keep a stiff upper-lip” mentality combined with a Hispanic-influenced “macho” mentality. But, it goes further than that. In Western culture, women are encouraged to report, experience, and address their feelings, but, not always in a healthy manner. For example, my ex-wife (a self-admitted over-eater who lost 15 pounds–from 165 to 150 to get into a Gunny Sax wedding dress 3 sizes larger than her 130 lb. goal would have fit in had she realized that goal), used to get so angry her face would turn beet-red, but, deny that she felt anything other than “sad–’cause you hurt my feelings.”

    Men, on the other hand, are encouraged by society to experience only one emotion, anger, and to address it aggressively by working aggressively, playing aggressively (anyone notice it’s football season, the baseball playoffs are on, etc.? Go Broncos! Go Rockies!! OOPS: I digress! :)). That’s a factor not only in general emotional health for men, but in terms of dysfunctional relationships men and women have with each other.

    Men in American society do not generally get society’s permission (though this is changing with the social movement toward superficial acceptance of male- and female-homosexuality–the superficiality is not important for this discussion, in case you feel a flame coming on) to be happy, gay (no pun intended), carefree, etc. So, it’s not just the concept that men do have that certain actions are effeminate or weak. (And, you have to add in the the equation that we’re growing intellectually at a pace much faster than we are emotionally, as a race of men and women!)

    If you really want to learn something about the difference in men’s and women’s roles in American society, get and read some literature from AMEND, Abusive Men Exploring New Directions, however, be prepared to be forcefully removed from your pedestal if you’re one of those women (speaking to any reader) who has placed yourself, or allowed others–your husband, father, brothers’, etc.–to place you on one. They were “ahead of their time” 20 years ago and still are, but to a lesser degree.

    I haven’t yet read it, but “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, might be a good read. “Love and Addiction” is a great one.

    Now, what does all this have to do with over-eating? Again, I digress: I watched my ex-wife struggle to lose 15 pounds, from 165 to 150, when I had 6% body fat–at 25-28, weighed 160 lb., my “normal” weight beginning 1 year after graduating from high-school at 155, having put on 30 lb the last 2 years. I watched her, at 37% body fat, gain 100-110 lb. in 3 years. I watched her, early in my recovery–after mornings of binging at work on $0.25-0.30 candy-bars to the tune sometimes of $50/wk–come home, slur her speech, stagger from one room to another, etc., just like I had when I was drinking.

    She, wasn’t happy being married to me. I wasn’t happy being married to her. That’s part of why I relapsed several times from ’81 to ’84.

    “Man-boobs” is the term we men use for sagging, fatty pectorals, so you shouldn’t concern yourself with it’s use, as long as you’re not using it abusively (from my quick reading of the above discussion, your weren’t). Sometimes–pardon the cliche–it’s late, I’m tired, etc.–you just have to call a spade a spade, a man-boob a man-boob, a fat ass a fat ass (regardless of sex or gender). To break through the denial.

    Now, back to “What does this have to do with over-eating?” I have a theory, borne out, I believe, by my own observations and others: with the exception of the very rare individual with a true thyroid disorder who simply doesn’t metabolize calories at a normal rate, ALL OVER-EATING IS EMOTIONAL-OVEREATING!

    However, I have to qualify that. Up until the 1700s (as I recall, I’m doing this from memory and some of those are 20 years old–I’m not going to research this; you can, them flame me where I’m inaccurate–please cite your references–I’m KIDDING!), the Western world had a 7 out of 10 combined infant and child mortality rate. Women were encouraged not to open 4″ thick wood doors weighing up to several hundreds of pounds, not lift nor stack firewood, etc., because–with the general “ill health” of those populaces compared to ours today, they would miscarry regularly, including dying in the process, and the birth rate would suffer drastically, endangering the survival of the species. Thus, we treated women much differently.

    Men had to be tough. Men couldn’t afford to discuss their feelings. They were too busy trying to stay alive and to keep their families alive. Today, things are changing.

    If you don’t see as many obese men as you see women, you’re probably not looking where the obese men are. I see them; but, then I’m not “trying not” to see them.

    We do that: try not to see a problem. As late as the early ’70 (when I first went through “alcohol education”), we thought 80% of alcoholics were men, 20% women. Now, we know it’s relatively equal. We don’t cover up women’s drinking like we used to. More women are at work where the affects of their drunken behavior can be observed. More are being arrested for DUIs. Etc.

    Men react differently, as I noted above. We may not experience the same emotions as a consequence of the same circumstances: women tend to hide anger behind tears, men tend to hide all “so-called negative” emotions behind aggressiveness.

    Again, (discounting hypo- or hyper-thyroidism–I’ve forgotten which it is) all over-eating is emotional eating. My brain and body know when it’s full–though, there is a time-lag as the message is sent by means of hormones (not exactly the correct term, but, it’s late, my bad back, neck, etc., are killing me), not by nerves. It takes about 10-15 minutes for the message to arrive. That can easily be addressed by eating slowly, stopping early (not eating dessert), and waiting for the feeling of satiety to occur. I do it all the time; then, I continue to eat. I know I’m doing it. I know I’m doing it to repress my feelings. I usually (as a result of some very good group-therapy, individual counseling, etc., early in my recovery) know what feelings I’m trying to repress.

    Now, maybe women don’t feel the sense of security that comes from having too many pounds. Most men do. We can pat our fat bellies and know that we’re carrying enough caloric-reserves to last us through a certain number of “lean” crises. Where I’m struggling is convincing my brain that–as stress is a known-cause for unhealthy weight-retention–that it is being deceived; that the “feeling” of security that comes with eating past the point of feeling full is in reality, in the 21st century, a delusion.

    That fat belly does help us feel “bigger”. Many of us are. Take a look at some pro wrestlers or pro football linemen. Some of them have fat bellies but have so much muscle underneath it that they can literally “squash” little 5′ 11″, 215 lb. “shrimps” like me. (Why do you think running backs and wide-receivers run sooo fast?)

    So, where does that leave me? Interested, to say the least.

    Don’t beat yourself up over color-schemes and feminine figures; back in my early recovery when I was substitute-addicted to attending various 12-Step/12-Tradition fellowships meetings, I used to say “if the only meeting in town was a close-OA meeting full of fat old women, I’d ask them to open it up and let me in.” Well, now I’m getting to chew on those words, having endured an extended “crisis of faith”, a changing/rearranging/denial-of my “formerly-working” belief system.

    I’m no longer looking in a mirror, seeing the skin sagging at my knees after losing 10-15 pounds in a week, saying “My God! I’m FAT!! I have to go on a diet.” I’m no longer actively anorexic. I am–according to one calculator BMI online–borderline obese at 30% fat.

    I’m still disgusted by fat people. While in treatment, 24 years ago, I gained at least 40 pounds, from 135 to 175. I had to look at myself in a video tape, doing an assertive statement. All I could see was this huge belly going in and out as I breathed. Now, 40 lb. heavier, I’m still disgusted by fat women, and men, elsewhere. So, that means I’m disgusted with me–which counteracts the sense of security from carrying that caloric-reserve. Conflicted? Somewhat. Confused? No. So, what’s my problem?

    Intellect alone won’t solve it!

    Thanks. Good night.

    John

  22. Mike, I will stick around. I think Sheryl has some exceptional insights into this thing, and I look forward to learning more of them. And maybe there’s something to this “support group” thing after all. Anyway, I’ll see you on the forum.

    ***

    There is considerable pressure on men to look good at this point. Even if it is primarily media-imposed (as opposed to being what actual, real-life women want), the pressure is there. I guess for women it’s similar – honestly, no guy in the world finds rail-thin runway models attractive. And yet somehow, that ideal still gets into girls’ heads. The ideal physique for men is obviously different than it is for women – here the ideal is highly muscular and lean. The notion that men should look like Arnold Schwarzenegger is burned into a lot of guys’ minds. I don’t think the pressure is as pronounced as it is for women, but it’s substantial, and growing.

    I think this has to do with gender roles drawing closer to a middle ground from both sides – women now have their own incomes and don’t “need” a man in the same way they used to; men are no longer able to sustain a family on their single income (if they’re middle class), so they’re no longer the sole providers. So men have to compete on qualities other than status and their income, looks being a major one. Ironically, although women now earn their own incomes, I think the primary characteristic on which they’re judged hasn’t changed much – it’s still looks.

    I highly recommend the movie “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” to anyone that’s interested in body image issues, and more generally the ideals that society sets up for us, and how destructive they can be.

    ***

    I found many of John’s comments insightful (like about the stiff upper lip and anger), but personally don’t share the comfort he gets from his “spare tire.” I do share the feeling of disgust toward fatness, however – and yes, that includes myself.

    To me, the fat stands as a testament to a lack of self-control. Clearly, if I want be lean, but am unable to achieve this despite my best efforts, that means that I am not the master of my domain. And that creates all sorts of nasty implications – if I can’t even master myself, then how can I expect to master anything else?

  23. I’m so happy to be hearing from more men! The first 20 comments or so were almost all from women.

    John – first I want to say congratulations on 25 years clean and sober. That is an awesome accomplishment.

    I think you’re right that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are much more common in men than people think. I’ve met other men struggling with bulimia and it’s very hard for them. They end up in support groups that are all women but for them, and it’s tough. It makes them feel like freaks, but in fact there are plenty of other men with the problem. They’re just suffering silently and not getting help because it’s so difficult to say, “I’ve got this problem.”

    There was just one thing you said that I don’t agree with 100%:

    > I have a theory, borne out, I believe, by my own observations and others: with the exception of the very rare individual with a true thyroid disorder who simply doesn’t metabolize calories at a normal rate, ALL OVER-EATING IS EMOTIONAL-OVEREATING!

    There is one other element that many people don’t realize: processed foods containing high levels of sugar, salt, and fat are hard to stop eating because they are designed in a lab to be hard to stop eating. It’s physiological. The food scientists who invent this stuff (I was going to write “evil crap” but thought I’d soften that) use our natural instincts against us. I wrote more about this here:

    http://normaleating.com/blog/2009/06/2-main-reasons-people-overweight/

    Also, quick-digesting carbohydrates induce physiologically-based cravings, completely separate from emotional eating. And they create metabolic problems that cause weight gain. This is also completely separate from emotional eating, though it may FEEL like emotional eating. Here’s a blog post about that:

    http://normaleating.com/blog/2009/09/taubes-book-and-the-real-cause-of-obesity/

    I want to comment on the men and power issue, but this is already long so I’ll post it separately.

    – Sheryl

  24. MeatProduct – I’m glad you’ll be sticking around, and I look forward to getting to know you in the forum. It’s easier to talk about things there because it’s private.

    > honestly, no guy in the world finds rail-thin runway models attractive.

    It’s true! Men are biologically wired to like women with enough body fat to menstruate. And yet women think they should look like this. Sad.

    > The notion that men should look like Arnold Schwarzenegger is burned into a lot of guys’ minds. I don’t think the pressure is as pronounced as it is for women, but it’s substantial, and growing.

    That’s just as sad, and just as unnecessary. I don’t know any women who like those exaggerated lumpy muscles on men. Maybe there are a few somewhere, but to me it just looks freaky.

    The issue of power and how it relates to eating and weight is interesting – especially from the male perspective, since men are under societal pressure to be powerful. For women, it’s the other way around – it’s bad for them to be too powerful.

    There are two ways to look at power. One is what John wrote here:

    > That fat belly does help us feel “bigger”. Many of us are. Take a look at some pro wrestlers or pro football linemen. Some of them have fat bellies but have so much muscle underneath it that they can literally “squash” little 5′ 11″, 215 lb. “shrimps” like me.

    The power of “bigness” is something many women mention as well, usually after losing large amounts of weight. When they’re fat, they just think they want to be smaller. But when the ARE smaller, they often experience a very uncomfortable sense of fragility and vulnerability. It’s literally harder to “push around” someone who is very large. If it’s a man rather than a woman, bigness can actually be intimidating.

    But I wonder if power-in-bigness would mainly apply to taller men, or men who have a lot of muscle as well as fat. I saw a very large man in a coffee shop recently thought he looked intimidating, especially compared to the shorter, thinner man he was with. This guy was big – well over 6 feet tall – and heavy. You just looked at him next to the smaller guy and thought, “Good thing he’s in a good mood ’cause he could crush that guy.”

    However, a shorter man who was similarly heavy might not be intimidating, and in fact might seem to have less power. The other way to look at power is what MeatProduct wrote:

    > To me, the fat stands as a testament to a lack of self-control. Clearly, if I want be lean, but am unable to achieve this despite my best efforts, that means that I am not the master of my domain. And that creates all sorts of nasty implications – if I can’t even master myself, then how can I expect to master anything else?

    In general, people with emotional eating issues fall into one of two categories: permitters or restrictors. (An individual can switch between these at different times of life.) A permitter will tend to be overweight. A restrictor will tend to be underweight, and – at the extreme – anorexic.

    The psychological dynamic behind anorexia is control. Usually anorexia is triggered in adolescence by something that makes the teenager feel very out of control, such as divorcing parents. Being able to resist biological hunger can feel very powerful, so it counteracts this out-of-control feeling. If a recovering anorexic suddenly feels the urge to restrict, the question to ask is, “What is happening in your life that’s making you feel out of control?” Given that context, it makes sense that a man who is a “permitter” would feel less powerful, less in control.

    Anyone eating compulsively feels out of control, but for men I think this has broader implications, given the cultural mandate on men.

    Well, I seem to be writing novellas here. I’ll stop now. 🙂

    – Sheryl

  25. I am begining to think “addiction” is really at the core of all of this. It may not be an addiction to a drug like LSD, or cocain though. I think it might be an addiction to something else. The drug of approval or success can be very adicting.

    I never struggled with the drugs John talked about. I don’t know why but maybe it was timing and my own surroundings that made the difference for me. I feel fortunate that I did not have to struggle with that and sorry that anyone else does.

    Just being singled out as being special, or receiving recognition for accomplishment can be as addictive as any drug mentioned. That addiction can lead to doing whatever it takes to keep the recogniton coming. The success, being the leader of the team, getting your name in the news. All drugs that can grab hold of you and make you want more. What do we do to keep getting that drug?

  26. Mike,

    In the last couple of days I’ve come to much the same conclusion – that addiction, at least for me, seems to be a general undercurrent, not substance-specific phenomenon. I went from marijuana to online games to cigarettes to compulsive spending to food. If I stop eating emotionally without addressing what’s really driving me to all of this behavior, then I’m liable to just switch to some other addiction, maybe one that’s worse.

    The addiction to success you mentioned is basically vanity. And you’re 100% right, it can be as addictive as any drug. It’s also much more subtle, so probably harder to deal with. It’s not as obvious – you don’t grow a guy because of it at the end of the day. So in a way, we’re fortunate in that we’ve been forced to come face-to-face with the fruits of our labor.

  27. The so called “addictive personality” is real, it lives. Can we kill it? Or, do we learn to manage it in ways that are less destructive to us?

    My opinion, (really just my opinion) ……. we can’t kill it. We must learn to get along with it so that it does not destroy us. To do that, I have to first learn to recognise it, then to try to understand it. When that happens, I feel less threatened by it. When I am not threatened by it, I might learn to train it so its less destructive to me. But, like a lion in a cage, when you enter the cage, never turn your back on it! It has the potential of dominating you and eating you up.

  28. Compulsive eating (or emotional eating – whatever you want to call it) is definitely a form of addictive behavior. And addiction is not about the object, it’s a personality style, so you can switch from food to internet to whatever. It’s not all bad. There is a positive side to the addictive personality. I write about this extensively in the book – don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read that part yet.

    – Sheryl

  29. One more thought before I turn my attention to getting the lawn mowed.

    It just occured to me after my last comment, John is absolutely correct. Intellect alone won’t solve it. If it did, a lot of us would not be reading through this site. I know that for me understanding and talking about what I should be doing vs. actually doing it remains my challenge.

  30. My boyfriend is an emotional eater. There are no books written *by men* about this subject. The resources and classes are also focused on women.

    Sheryl, you should find a male co-author if you want to take this on, and completely restructure with a male approach and perspective. I don’t think just changing the image on your cover or website is enough. I’d like to have some better resources available that are male-focused.

  31. I don’t think it’s true that only a man can understand or help men. Nor is it true that only a woman can understand and help women. I’ve been in therapy with male therapists and was helped.

    It’s not just about male/female. In general, you don’t need to be exactly like someone and have experienced every problem they have in order to help them. I’ve helped many people who aren’t exactly like me.

    I have felt that I needed more experience in working with men, though, so I understood their perspective and issues better. More men are joining the Normal Eating Support Group now, so that’s starting to happen.

    And of course it’s true that more needs to change in an updated version of the book than the cover. All the examples in it now are from a female perspective.

  32. I have struggled with both anorexia and compulsive overeating, and books like “The Hungry Years” and “Born Round” (both memoirs by men) have helped me understand that I’m not alone in battling emotional eating. Right now I’m working on a class project to design a counseling group, and I want mine to be a men’s emotional eating group, since a health center near me offers a women’s workshop on emotional eating, but not one for men. (When I asked why, they said what you did in your post: not enough demand.)

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