Another case where gender identity is linked to an eating disorder, this time in a trans man (born female).
And, another case where transition did not cure the eating disorder.
In this case a teenager who was being treated for his eating disorder requested therapy for gender dysphoria. His weight had already been restored, although he was still getting therapy for the eating disorder.
After counseling for gender dysphoria, the patient took testosterone and openly identified as a man. His anxiety improved, he had more friends, and he had his first girlfriend. Five months later, he had a bilateral mastectomy.
Ten months after surgery, the patient returned to the eating clinic for help. He said that his relapse began after his surgery and got worse when he returned to normal activity.
It is important to note that six months after surgery, the patient’s weight was normal and he felt better about his appearance. However, his eating patterns do not seem to have been discussed.
The patient had not continued counseling after surgery.
There are not many details on the patient’s gender dysphoria in this case study, but there does seem to be a connection between his eating disorder and his gender dysphoria. The patient “disclosed to his family that he felt like ‘a boy in a girl’s body’ and later acknowledged that his eating disorder was related to a desire to get rid of feminine features—’I dislike my curves, my breasts, my hips, my face. I wish I had more defined muscles in my arms and a more angular face.'”
It is worth noting, however, that the patient had two cousins with eating disorders. Genetics and environment were probably also factors in his eating disorder.
The authors make a number of important points about this case in their discussion.
We don’t know if medical transition helps with eating disorders.
“Studies show that medical interventions, including both hormone therapy and surgery, improve gender dysphoria. Their effects on disordered eating in patients with gender dysphoria, however, are less clear.”
On the one hand, in one qualitative study, a trans man who had had breast reduction surgery said it helped with his eating issues. In addition, another study found that patients who had had gender reassignment surgery had less body uneasiness than patients who had not or patients with eating disorders. It is not clear to me that this last study is relevant to patients with both gender dysphoria and eating disorders.
On the other hand,
“In our patient, although he experienced considerable improvement in body image, anxiety, and social functioning following treatment for gender dysphoria, he experienced a relapse in eating disorder behaviors postoperatively. Other case reports in adults describe similar relapses in disordered eating following medical treatment for gender dysphoria.* These cases suggest that, while GCS and other medical interventions often reduce psychological distress related to gender dysphoria, additional therapies may be required to ensure long-term resolution of disordered eating. Eating disorders have high rates of chronicity as well as relapse, particularly during periods of stress and life change. It is therefore crucial to engage all patients with gender dysphoria, regardless of their stage in treatment, in open conversations about eating patterns, body image, and thought processes.”
Urgent needs have to be taken care of first.
Treatment for patients with both eating disorders and gender dysphoria needs to be integrated and hierarchical; life threatening issues have top priority. In other words, you may have to eat before you can transition.
“Eating disorder treatment is complex given the combination of medical, psychological, and nutritional needs. Patients with gender dysphoria also have distinct needs related to gender incongruity. Using a hierarchical approach is one method to help focus therapy and ensure that all needs receive attention when appropriate. Life-threatening issues, such as vital sign instability from nutritional insufficiency or suicidality, should have first priority. These issues frequently require hospitalization to initiate nutritional rehabilitation and psychiatric care in a monitored environment. Following medical and psychiatric stabilization, weight restoration can often continue in the outpatient setting with multidisciplinary support from physicians, therapists, dietitians, and when possible, family members. Throughout treatment, the eating disorder team should strive to create a safe environment for the patient to explore the sources of his or her disordered eating, providing the opportunity to recognize or reveal any underlying issues. For patients with known gender dysphoria, the eating disorder team can assist by affirming the patient’s gender identity, allowing him or her to explore different options for expressing that identity, and providing resources for specialized care.”
Trans men’s eating disorders may look different from the norm.
Trans men may have different goals from other patients with eating disorders; patients with anorexia typically wish to be thin. Trans men may be trying to eliminate their period or reduce their curves as in this case and in this Turkish case study. The trans man in this study did not care about his weight, but was very dissatisfied with his body. It is important that these patients’ eating disorders not be missed because they are atypical. As the authors say,
“While the goals of weight loss in MtF patients often align with those of cisgender eating disorder patients, the goals of weight loss in FtM patients often diverge from those of cisgender patients, potentially limiting the utility of current eating disorder questionnaires in this population.”
We need to keep track of eating disorders after transition.
We can’t assume that a patient with an eating disorder will be fine after they are treated for their gender dysphoria. Treatment for the eating disorder needs to be ongoing.
“While improvement in gender dysphoria may lead to some improvement in eating pathology, many patients may benefit from additional support from an eating disorder team, as found for our patient. Further research should explore the success of different types of eating disorder treatment in adolescents with gender dysphoria before, during, and after gender dysphoria treatment.”
Not everyone needs the same treatment for gender dysphoria.
“Treatment for gender dysphoria varies from person to person. For some individuals, dysphoria can be alleviated through psychotherapy alone or combined with non-medical changes in gender expression. For many, gender dysphoria requires hormone therapy, surgery, or both. Adolescents who desire medical treatment later in life can use hormonal treatments to suppress or delay puberty. The Standards of Care of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, however, recommends delaying suppression until the adolescent has reached at least Tanner Stage 2, so that he or she has some experience of his or her assigned sex. Hormone therapy to feminize or masculinize the body can also be started during adolescence, although this therapy should only be used in patients who demonstrate long-lasting or intense gender dysphoria, as the effects are only partially reversible. Surgery, on the other hand, may only be pursued once the patient reaches the age of majority for his or her country. For our patient, hormone therapy began at age 18 years, 10 months after expressing symptoms of gender dysphoria, and mastectomy was performed at age 19 years.”
Comparing eating disorders in transgender teens and adults
The authors also discuss the timeline of this case – i.e. gender dysphoria was diagnosed after the eating disorder. They contrast this with case reports of adults where an eating disorder developed during or after “assuming a transgender identity.” They add that “the only other case report available on adolescent patients describes a similar progression [to this study], with both patients initially presenting with AN and later expressing themselves as transgender.”
Therefore, they suggest that “disordered eating may be the presenting symptom in some adolescents with gender dysphoria, highlighting the benefit of addressing gender identity in young patients with eating disorders. Gender identity may be addressed either using an intake form or during the patient interview.” (see below)
The situation is a little more complicated. In fact, in this case study a teenager developed an eating disorder when she decided to live as a woman. In addition, this study of an adult mentions that her eating disorder began at age 15 when she decided to live as a woman.
So we have two cases of teenagers who decided to live as women and then developed eating disorders and three cases of teenagers who were diagnosed with gender dysphoria during treatment for eating disorders. We don’t have enough cases to come to any real conclusions about the development of eating disorders and gender dysphoria in teenagers.
In any case, it may be that interviewing teenagers when they enter treatment for eating disorders will not lead to a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. In this case study, one of the teenagers was clear at the beginning of treatment that he was a gay man and did not want to be a woman. His gender dysphoria developed during the treatment of his eating disorder.
As always, we need more research. So far we have case studies of 17 patients. The individual cases vary widely and it’s unclear exactly how gender dysphoria and eating disorders are linked. It does not seem that treating gender dysphoria cures eating disorders, however.
This newest case study demonstrates that transition for gender dysphoria does not cure an eating disorder. It points to a connection between the eating disorder and the desire to be a man, but it also points to a possible contribution from genetic and environmental factors.
*In this case study, one of the trans women had an eating disorder in adolescence that returned many years later after surgery. In this case study, one of the trans women had transitioned but was still severely underweight – although the authors did not seem to think she had an eating disorder. Finally, in this case study, a trans man developed an eating disorder after surgery. He had not had an eating disorder previously.
In addition, there are a number of case studies where patients had eating disorders, although they were on hormones and had socially transitioned.
More details from the case study:
The patient had been seeing doctors for a couple of years before he brought up his gender issues.
At age 16 the patient was not getting his period, but his weight was normal and he said he had no body image concerns. The doctors prescribed oral contraceptives.
“The patient returned a year later with 2.3 kg of weight loss, resulting in a body mass index (BMI) of 16.9 kg/m2 (81% expected body weight for females of the same age). CS acknowledged daily exercise and a ‘desire for a different body shape,’ with a ‘more toned and muscular’ appearance. The patient denied food restriction, purging behaviors, or body image distortion and committed to increasing caloric intake to gain weight. Gender identity was not discussed and no treatment was pursued after this visit.
Five months later, CS presented with an additional 4.5 kg weight loss, resulting in a BMI of 14.9 kg/m2 (70% expected body weight). The patient then admitted to food restriction as well as a fear of gaining weight, leading to a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa (AN). The clinician did not inquire about underlying motivations for weight loss beyond general body dissatisfaction and anxiety.
There was no significant medical, psychiatric, or surgical history at the time of diagnosis. Family history included two cousins with eating disorders (specific diagnoses unknown). Socially, the patient was a high-achieving student with few peer relationships and no high-risk behaviors.”
At this point, the patient began 9 months of outpatient family-based therapy for anorexia. Four months into this treatment, he requested therapy for gender dysphoria. “He began biweekly individual psychotherapy to explore his gender identity and cognitive behavioral therapy to address ongoing anxiety.”
Ten months later he started to take testosterone and five months after that he had surgery to remove his breasts at age 19.
Medical treatment for gender dysphoria helped the patient significantly with his anxiety. He began to live as a man, expanded his peer relationships, and had his first romantic relationship with a woman.
His weight was stable for six months after surgery and he was more satisfied with his body, but the follow-up does not seem to have included any discussion of his eating (“a detailed discussion of his eating patterns and cognitions was not documented”).
He returned to the clinic four months later to deal with restrictive eating and excessive exercise. His body weight had decreased and his BMI had dropped from 19 kg/m2 to 17.9 kg/m2. He explained that “his relapse began postoperatively due to exercise restrictions and school-related stress, with his behaviors intensifying when he returned to normal activity.”
More details on interviewing patients about gender
The authors offer these sample approaches:
|Sample approach on an intake form.|
|Use a two-step approach to identify both assigned sex and current gender identity.|
|Assigned sex at birth:|
|What sex were you assigned at birth, on your original birth certificate? (check one)|
|Current gender identity:|
|How do you describe yourself? (check one)|
|□ Do not identify as male, female, or transgender|
|Sample approach in an interview.|
|Frame discussion with an opening statement.|
|“Because many people are affected by gender issues, I ask all patients if they have any concerns in this area. As with the rest of the visit, what you say will be kept strictly confidential.”|
|Begin discussion with a broad question(s).|
|“What questions or concerns do you have about gender, sexuality, or sexual orientation (who you are attracted to)?”|
|“How do you define your gender?”|
|“Have you been exploring gender?”|
Sample approach for an interview from: