Depression’s Role in Eating and Body-Image Issues in Male College Students

Body-image issues are common among young women. An abundance of research has focused on the relationship between body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, and eating patterns in adolescent and young adult women. Less attention has been given to this issue in young men, however. Male college students are particularly vulnerable to problems relating to eating and body image. College campuses are populated by men of all shapes and sizes, and the pressure to belong and be liked can cause them to hold themselves to unrealistic physical ideals.

Extremely low body-fat percentages and muscular physiques are common goals that young men aspire to. However, achieving these results can lead young men to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors and extreme exercise habits. In addition, many such young men are at risk for depression and suicide. Because rates of depression are disproportionately high on college campuses, Joel R. Grossbard of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington wanted to determine if depression was a positive or negative influence on eating issues. He also examined whether this relationship differed in college men when compared to college women.

For his study, Grossbard evaluated online surveys from 669 college students and examined levels of depression, body dissatisfaction, and general health behaviors. He found that for men and women, low levels of depression were linked to higher levels of body dissatisfaction and eating issues. Perhaps surprisingly, high levels of depression moderated body dissatisfaction and problem eating. When he compared the male and female participants, Grossbard found that eating issues were linked to thinness and muscularity aspirations more often in men than in women. Grossbard found also that men who have high body ideals tend to view psychological help as a sign of weakness, which puts them at further risk for depression and eating and body-image issues. “Therefore, interventions that address maladaptive cognitions about help-seeking and support the use of problem-focused coping strategies may enhance engagement in campus treatment services for depression and disordered eating,” Grossbard said.

Grossbard, J. R., Atkins, D. C., Geisner, I. M., Larimer, M. E. (2012). Does depressed mood moderate the influence of drive for thinness and muscularity on eating disorder symptoms among college men? Psychology of Men & Masculinity. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028913

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  • p.wade

    August 30th, 2012 at 11:56 AM

    often men are not thought of to be at risk for things such as these..relationship abuse and body issues are some of the things that are by default thought of as to have only women at the receiving end.but it couldn’t be farther from the truth.i have seen young men falling ill trying to achieve their ideal body and working out excessively that can have major health repercussions.

    if the ones having the issue are not acknowledged to be a vulnerable group then no help goes their way and things will only deteriorate.

  • bryant

    August 30th, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    Thank you so much for shining a spotlight on the fact that men as well as women can be suscetible to eating disorders, particularly if they are in an environment where looks are prized above all else or they see a large number of young men in competitive situations when it comes to having the most desirable physique. I think that for too long there has of course been interest in young women with these eating issues but little attention has ever been paid to the fact that men too can feel like they have to be thin to win. It is a situation that can’t be ignored as it is just as serious and dangerous as that which women face, maybe even more for the simple reason that few people believe that this would be something that men will have to face.

  • Jenson s

    August 30th, 2012 at 5:21 PM

    Low depression levels=higher body dissatisfaction?
    am i reading this right?
    i would have thought for sure that the opposite would have been true

  • Harry

    August 30th, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    @Jenson:Maybe that’s because depressed people do not have any time left to concentrate or worry about their bodies?I’m not certain but that’s one reason I could think of.

  • laurel

    August 31st, 2012 at 4:00 AM

    I really believe that for men you got to the crux of the problem near the end of the article where you state that seeking help for most men is something that they believe to be a sign of weakness.

    No matter what is going on in their lives, from driving directions to getting hekp with an eating disorder and anything in between, if you tell them that they must seek help then they will almost certainly rebel against that notion.

    I suppose that this is because this the myth that has been perpetuated throughout society, that men should be stronger then that and not need help from others. The way I see it, though, is that asking others for help shows more strength and courage then sitting around what others will think about you if you do.

  • Rick

    August 31st, 2012 at 1:11 PM

    I don’t know about body image coz I am not usually worried about that but when Im depressed my eating habits just go haywire.I do not eat well enough and its almost a given that I would lose some weight if Im depressed or worrying constantly about something.

  • Blake R

    September 1st, 2012 at 6:17 AM

    It is hard to be in a setting like a college campus where everyone is so young and beautiful and not feel some sort of pressure to look that way too

    you don’t realize it but men care about the way that we look too, and yes there is just as much pressure on men to look good as there is for women

  • cayden

    September 3rd, 2012 at 7:40 AM

    never one time have i seen a program where i go to school that targets males with eating disorders, only females, which i think would lean a lot of men to assume that this is something that they can’t get

  • Millette

    September 4th, 2012 at 3:48 PM

    This has me so worried, because I have a college aged son who has been obsessed for quite some time about gaining weight and worryi when he puts on one or two extra pounds. In the back of my mind I guess I have wondered before if he could have some sort of eating disorder, but then I always brush it off. I know I have probably even said in the past that this is not possible that this kind of think only happens to young women. But that’s not the case is it? As I read this I processed so many comments that he has made to me about not feeling like he looks like he should, wishing that he could look different, wondering if he was too large to be accepted into the fraternity that he wanted to join. I am seriously worried but don’t know how to approach him with this information in a way that will not feel threatening to him.

  • pat donovan

    September 17th, 2012 at 6:16 AM

    New study (just out) about effect of men’s parasocial (one-sided, emotional) relationships with male superheros on their body image. Link to study:

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