JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Leonard and Frieda Saraga of Jacksonville have a hard time escaping the troubled battle their son Scott has endured for most of his life.
It is a similar battle other men and boys are fighting all across the country, including the First Coast, that some experts now refer to as a "silent epidemic."
Currently, the National Eating Disorders Association estimates 10 million men and boys will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life.
But, male eating disorders, even though they are similar in nature to female eating disorders, are not publicly recognized or talked about as often.
Experts argue that we live in a culture today where it is not as okay for males to come forward with concerns about their weight and body image.
"I think men, especially, they're stereotyped as the macho man. I think stereotypically we think of this as a women's disease, " said Jill McCann, a registered dietitian with Beaded Star Eating Disorder Recovery Center in Jacksonville Beach.
But, that is not to say men do not have unhealthy relationships with food. Often times, McCann said, male althetes are prone to eating disorders.
"They do anything they possibly can to meet that weight on weigh-in day, meaning not eating for 48 hours to meet that weight then trying to go play a football game," McCann said.
Eating disorders, she said, are also found in men with pre-existing conditions like depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder.
Her co-worker registered dietitian Marilyn Dahl said males who do come forward for treatment often don't realize how dangerous frequent dieting and exercise can become.
"Several of my clients started with healthy eating that just tripped in their head that perfectionism, and lost over 100 pounds in one case," she said.
The consequences are also similar to what females experience, but because no one is talking regularly about male eating disorders, McCann believes they're not taken seriously.
She said, "The awareness is not there where it needs to be right now."
For the Saraga family, every day is a reminder of what an eating disorder can do.
"It has destroyed him in many ways because physically it's handicapping him," they told First Coast News' Jacob Long.
Scott Saraga, 55, is confined to spending a lot of time on the computer at his Riverside home researching different medication. He is not able to work because he is on disability, and facing a number of serious medical issues.
"My nervous system is gradually deteriorating due to a lifelong vitamin deficiency. My blood work is all out of whack and now I am developing kidney problems," he said.
Four decades ago, when Saraga was only 15, he began feeling pressure to lose weight.
He said, "I was kind of a chubby kid, and used to get teased for that. So, I started dropping all this weight. I was beginning to play with food to see how thin I could get."
Not long after that, while Saraga was in school, he said he became bulimic.
"I thought I had found this magical secret that nobody else in the whole world knew about. It's like that was the beginning of the end," he said.
Saraga was also over-exercising to stay thin and then later in life he would become an anorexic. But, not once did he ever talk about the eating disorder that was consuming his life.
He said, "It was taboo. I can think of nothing else (worse) in the world than for me to get caught."
"It was like his secret; something he had power over," Saraga's mother added.
It would not be until Saraga needed expensive, out-of-town treatment that he finally opened up to his parents. Sadly, though, so much physical damage that is now permanent had already been done.
"I'm paying a very big price for it now," Saraga said.
His parents now cannot help but wonder what might have been had eating disorders in men been more widely talked about in the past.
Frieda Saraga said, "If we would've known at the beginning, perhaps, just perhaps, we might have known the right things to say, the right things to do."
The family's hope is other families on the First Coast will learn from Scott's story and intervene before it's too late.
"I only wish that parents of sons would be more aware of the fact that this could happen to their son," Frieda said.
Some warning signs to watch out for include:
- Concerns over food and weight
- Excessive exercise and dieting
- Sudden weight or hair loss
- Frequent trips to the bathroom, especially after eating
- Teeth erosion
If any of these signs and symptoms go untreated, they can cause potentially life-threatening illnesses. Scott Saraga said that is something he knows about it all too well.
"It's real and it will kill you," he said.
Here is a list of places on the First Coast where you can seek treatment for an eating disorder
- Body Image Counseling, 1545 Landon Ave., Jacksonville, FL
- Beaded Star Eating Disorder Recovery Center, 2380 S. 3rd St. Suite #2, Jacksonville Beach, FL
- Baptist Health, Jacksonville, FL
- UF Health Eating Disorder Recovery Center, 4101 NW 89th Blvd., Gainesville, FL