LOS ANGELES -- Contrary to the long-held belief that anorexia and bulimia are female afflictions, the first national survey on eating disorders has found that one-quarter of adults with the conditions are men.
The study estimated that about 850,000 men had suffered from the disorders and, despite two decades of intense attention to the conditions, had gone largely undetected.
"This is a very important finding," said Ruth Streigel-Moore, an eating disorders specialist at Wesleyan University who was not connected with the study. "It suggests a need to move away from gender-based explanations."
The researchers said the findings, which will appear today in the journal Biological Psychiatry, indicate that men are vulnerable to the same social pressures that lead some women to uncontrollably binge and purge on food and others to literally starve themselves.
"Body image has become more important among men," said co-author Dr. Harrison G. Pope Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "There's a large, silent population of men who might be quite ill."
Overall, the survey found that 4.5 percent of adults, or 9.3 million people, have struggled with an eating disorder sometime in their lives. Anorexia accounted for 1.3 million of the cases and bulimia, 2.1 million. Binge eating, a disorder of frequent, uncontrollable periods of gorging, accounted for the largest number of cases, 5.9 million.
The study, conducted by researchers at Harvard University Medical School, was based on information obtained from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, a mental health survey of nearly 9,000 adults from across the United States.
Funding for the study came from several sources, including the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies Eli Lilly & Co. and Johnson & Johnson, both of which sell drugs that are used as off-label treatments for eating disorders.