Tag Archives: gender dysphoria and eating disorders

Help for Eating Disorders

You are not alone. Help is just a call or click away.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, we are here to help.

  • Call our toll free, confidential Helpline at 1-800-931-2237
  • Click to chat with a Helpline volunteer (click at left on their website)

We are here every  Monday-Thursday from 9:00 am – 9:00 pm and Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (EST). Our helpline volunteers will be there to offer support and guidance with compassion and understanding.”

From the National Eating Disorders Association website. More information at their website.

You can leave messages at their helpline when they are closed.

Review of: Effects of treating gender dysphoria and anorexia nervosa in a transgender adolescent: Lessons learned

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.

Original Source:

Effects of treating gender dysphoria and anorexia nervosa in a transgender adolescent: Lessons learned by Strandjord SE, Ng H, Rome ES in Int J Eat Disord. 2015 Nov;48(7):942-5.

 

*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)
□ Male
□ Female
Current gender identity:
How do you describe yourself? (check one)
□ Male
□ Female
□ Transgender
□ 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 intake form from:

Reisner SL, Conron KJ, Tardiff LA, Jarvi S, Gordon AR, Austin SB. Monitoring the health of transgender and other gender minority populations: Validity of natal sex and gender identity survey items in a U.S. national cohort of young adults. BMC Public Health2014; 14:1224. 

Sample approach for an interview from:

Makadon HJ. Ending LGBT invisibility in health care: The first step in ensuring equitable care. Cleve Clin J Med 2011; 78:220224

Review – Diverging Eating Psychopathology in Transgendered Eating Disorder Patients: A Report of Two Cases

These are two somewhat unusual case studies from Singapore. Once again, there is a connection between eating disorders and gender identity. Once again, the connection is different from other case studies.

Case 1 – A Fluid Gender Identity and an Eating Disorder

In the first case, the patient had a fluid gender identity; sometimes he identified as a man and sometimes as a woman.

When he identified as a woman, he restricted his food and exercised excessively. He wanted to be thin and felt a kinship with emaciated women because they were infertile like him.

When he identified as a man, he tried to gain weight and muscles, but his exercise and eating habits were still pathological.

The patient was always distressed and dissatisfied with his body.

In other words, his gender identity affected the form his eating disorder took, but it was probably not the cause of it.

Case 2 – Changing Gender Identity, Changing Eating Patterns

In the second case, the patient identified as a woman when he first sought treatment for his eating disorder. However, after a year of treatment, the patient came out to his friends as gay. They were accepting of his sexual orientation and he became more comfortable with a male gender identity.

Similarly to the first case, when the patient wanted to be a woman, he tried to become thin, using restricted eating, excessive exercise, and purging. However, when he began to identify as a male, he tried to build up his muscles and he ate more.

The authors do not comment on whether or not this patient still disliked his body.

The authors suggest that gender identity influences the form of body psychopathology; constructing your gender identity is linked to constructing your body. However, they do not suggest that gender dysphoria caused the eating disorders or that treating the gender dysphoria will cure them.

These two cases support their theory, but it is important to remember that this is a case study of two people. So far, the main conclusion I can draw from various cases studies is that each person’s story is different.

From the Discussion:

“The present case series describes two transgendered biological males seeking treatment for eating disorders, whose intermittent periods of endorsing both masculine and feminine gender identities impacted significantly upon their experience of eating disorder psychopathology. The two patients indicated that during periods of endorsing a feminine gender identity, they experienced an elevated definite drive for thinness, such that their body image psychopathology was oriented towards weight loss, reporting dietary restriction and cardiovascular exercise to lose weight. Furthermore, both patients reported that during periods of masculine gender identity endorsement, their body image psychopathology was oriented towards weight gain with an emphasis on “buff muscularity,” reporting increased food intake and muscle building exercise regimens.

This case series draws attention to the potential role of masculinity and femininity in body image psychopathology amongst males. Both patients depicted reported that the variation in their eating disorder psychopathology was concordant with their preferred gender identity, suggesting that the construction of one’s gender identity and the construction of one’s body may be interrelated.”

More details on the gender shift in the second case study:

At the beginning of treatment,

“…he reported homosexual sexual orientation and described privately wondering whether he was born into the wrong gender from approximately age 6. He reported periodically ‘trying to like girls’ due to the cultural and legal ramifications of homosexuality in his country of origin [probably China], and further stated that on many occasions his sexual orientation resulted in him feeling victimized and bullied. Patient Z reported significant discomfort with his sexual orientation, although he did report a female gender identity, which allowed him to experience his secretive same sex relationships as heterosexual given his assumed female identity.”

Before treatment, when he was restricting his food and purging,

“Patient Z reported immense discomfort surrounding his emerging sexual orientation, and reported strongly endorsing a female identity which enabled Patient Z to experience his same-sex attraction as heterosexual, alleviating the subjective distress and internal conflict he experienced in his homosexual urges. Patient Z described his role models to be female supermodels, stating that he aspired to their thin and feminine frames, adding that his gaunt appearance brought about by dietary restriction ‘accentuated his cheekbones’ and helped him identify with his female role models. Patient Z reported egosynotonicity of eating disorder symptomatology, allowing him to feel ‘small and more like a woman’ which he demonstrated in a collection of drawings depicting emaciated women, which he described as his ideal body.”

But then,

“Approximately 12 months into treatment Patent Z revealed his sexuality to his friends, whose acceptance and support reportedly alleviated the internal conflict he experienced around his same-sex attraction. As a result Patient Z reported reduced ambiguity surrounding his gender identity, describing more comfort in identifying with a male gender identity. During this same period, Patient Z developed a desire for muscular development as opposed to emaciation, and started a muscle building training regimen. Furthermore, this period was also characterized by Patient Z consuming greater quantities of food in support of his desire for greater muscularity.”

Original Source:

Diverging Eating Psychopathology in Transgendered Eating Disorder Patients: A Report of Two Cases by Murray SB, Boon E, Touyz SW in Eat Disord. 2013;21(1):70-4.