TODAY | February 23, 2012
>>> back now at 7:44 with a warning on the dangers of eating disorders . while they are typically associated with women, there is another group that is often left untreated. nbc's medical editor, dr. nancy snyderman is here with more.
>> most of us by conventional wisdom know that more girls than boys get anorexia anywhere santa rosa , but one million adolescent males every day battle eating disorders and far too often the symptoms go unnoticed. thomas, a straight-a student an exceptional athlete, and a boy secretly obsessed with diet and exercise in hopes of achieving the perfect body .
>> he wanted a six-pack, he wanted rock-hard abs, he wanted muscles, that's how it started.
>> it was anorexia, a life-threatening eating disorder . for eight years, tj starved himself and exercised compulsively. eventually he stopped eating for up to 23 hours a day while exercising close to five.
>> he would ask us, beg us, please don't tell anybody. it's so embarrassing. everybody thinks this is a girl's disease.
>> tj died in the middle of his nightly routine doing 1,000 sit-ups. at 22 years old, weighing 78 years old, his heart gave out.
>> the look in his eyes, the last pictures he took of himself on his camera -- it wasn't tj. it was not my son.
>> tj is the new face of anorexia. now an equal-opportunity disease. at least one million males in this country suffer from eating disorders . dying ton thin. experts say it takes a certain kind of personality to go to this extreme.
>> it's very unusual for someone to come into my office for an assessment of anorexia, if they do not have straight as, and this is true for boys and girls . and in sports, these are great athletes who drive themselves to the next level.
>> doctors like psychiatrist james locke believe that kids stri strive for the same air-brushed perfection. and boys concentrate on muscle mass and fat index.
>> they come later to treatment, so they're physically sicker.
>> this boy was ten when his family first sntsed he was losing weight.
>> i realized if i restrict a little bit, i get a little high off this, i feel a little bit better. so that was kind of -- it was a gradual process.
>> his family knew he was in trouble when in matter of weeks, he went from being a picky eater to having a psychosomatic illness , he couldn't swallow solid food.
>> i felt i was up against death in watching my child potentially die on me. so -- i was fighting to save him.
>> but far too often, parents mistakenly blame themselves.
>> when you look at your tool box , parents in it?
>> parents are the main tool in the tool box . they're your best resource to help a kid get better this he can help them eat at home, they can disrupt the maintaining exercises and they are really the people who understand their child and who love them. and that love leveraged properly, and supported by the right professional advice can change the entire outcome.
>> even after two lengthy stays at a treatment center, avi, now 14, admits he still struggles with a distorted body image .
>> i definitely sometime i look at myself and say, i'm so fat.
>> but for now with the help of his family, food is not his enemy.
>> after not eating for a few years, everything seems so good. i love burritos, ice cream . pizza. and -- all sorts of stuff.
>> this is a real psychiatric disorder that can obviously do bodily harm. and treatment is imperative. parents can't do this by themselves. treatment with a pediatrician or an eating disorder specialist includes everything from hospitalization to therapy and sometimes medication. one of the biggest hurdles a lot of parents face is the insurance companies . and ann, that seems to be a common theme. because as kids gain a couple of pounds, some of the insurance companies say the child is getting better and then they want to stop reimbursement. this is a long-term treatment and the insurance companies are going to have to be part of the solution.
>> bottom line, you're saying that parents have got to fight for their kids in this regard. and so what should they be looking for in terms of warning signs ?
>> especially in boys, start to look for things like excessive exercise, picky eating, hoarding food. putting food in your room. avi took sushi and stuffed it up his sleeves to hide it from his parents and boys dress peculiarly. they start to layer clothing and those sweatshirt hoodies, very common. they want to disappear from the world. but layering clothing and sometimes being cold where everybody else is normal, that's an idea that your metabolic system is really changing.
>> dr. nancy snyderman thanks so much for bringing attention to had story.