The first time Ron Saxen discovered the numbing effects of food, he was 11 and nervously anticipating a beating by his strict father -- a punishing military man who often burst into his son's bedroom to beat him after work. Terrified, the boy devoured a bag of chocolates that lay by his bedside.
"My mother used to keep a note pad if we did things wrong," said Saxen, now 48. "My father would come home late at night and I would wait with my sweaty feet and palms. I had 15 pounds of chocolate candy from a sale at school. I ate one and it took me away."
"I learned at an early age that food erases anxiety," said Saxon, a former model who wrote about how binge eating destroyed his career in his 2007 book, "The Good Eater."
Now, a new study reveals that men like Saxen are overlooked when it comes to diagnosing and treating binge eating, a disorder that affects 4 million Americans and has been historically associated with women.
The study, published today in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, reveals that the condition is just as damaging to men, and yet they seek treatment less often.
Saxen, now married and living in Berkeley, Calif., said after that incident, food was an escape. "If I ate a bunch of food, it would calm me down," he said. "It became the way I dealt with things."
He'd go to McDonald's and order a couple of Big Macs, large fries, a cheeseburger and a chocolate shake, then go on to Taco Bell for more and follow that with several king-sized candy bars.
Afterwards, horrified by his out-of-control eating, Saxen would run 30 miles. But as he got fatter, he couldn't run and burn off the weight, and he permanently damaged his knees.
When 6-foot, 1-inch tall Saxen ballooned from 180 to nearly 300 pounds, he dodged his modeling agent out of embarrassment and sabotaged his career.
Saxen began to realize he had a problem, but it took years to get help, mostly because of the shame. That, say researchers is one of the reasons male binge eating is largely unrecognized.
"It doesn't surprise me -- it's thought of as a women's disease," said Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. "Guys are reluctant to seek help. Eating disorders of all types are socially less acceptable than other addictive behaviors. If you drink or smoke, it may be an addiction, but if it's an eating disorder, you are crazy in society's mind."
Binge eating disorder (BED) is defined as having at least one episode a month of overeating with "a sense of loss of control," according to the study's lead author Ruth Striegel, professor of psychology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
Her team used cross-sectional data from a sample of 21,743 men and 24,608 women who participated in a health risk self-assessment screening. They found that 1,630 men (about 7.5 percent) and 2,754 women (11 percent) binge eat.
"Anytime we exclude a population, we are not learning about them," she said. "In a way, we are inadvertently giving the message that men don't have the problem, and they do."
"Data suggests that the impairment is basically just as bad in men as it is in women. Yet we focus only on women."
She estimates anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of all men experience the symptoms of binge eating. "It's not a rare phenomenon."
More women than men, however, report psychiatric symptoms like the "purging" associated with bulimia, according to Striegel.