The first time Ryan Branson was starving himself, he didn’t recognize that he had developed an eating disorder, anorexia nervosa.
He was 15 years old, a student at New Haven High School Class of 2008, and he was limiting his food, not because he thought he was fat, but so he wouldn’t gain weight.
“I always got a lot of attention — not good attention, negative attention,” said Branson, who was born with spastic cerebral palsy.
For him the condition has only affected his body, not his mind.
“My muscles get tight, so I have to stretch them,” he said, noting he uses a walker and sometimes a mobility scooter to get around, mainly at school.
Feeling like people were always looking at him, though, took a toll on his psyche, especially as a teenager.
“I stood out because I was different, using a walker, so I knew people were always looking at me,” said Branson. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t fat because that would just be another thing they could pick on me for.”
In the beginning Branson said he was really self-conscious about his body, how he looked. Then he began exercising compulsively and restricting his food intake.
After two years, Branson’s weight dropped into the 80-pound range and his parents, Deann and Walter “Junior” Branson, Berger, took him to a doctor who recognized that he was suffering from anorexia.
“The doctor knew right away that’s what I had, but I thought I could beat it on my own and start eating again,” said Branson.
“She gave me a week to start eating, said, ‘We’ll see if you’re better or have more weight.’ I tried, it didn’t happen. It’s a whole mental thing. You want to do this, but you can’t. Your mind is very powerful.”
The anorexia was doing a great deal of damage to Branson’s body. He was having chest pains and his blood pressure and heart rate were dangerously low.
Branson went to a treatment facility in Kansas City one of the few places his parents could find that would accept male eating disorder patients. The facility has since closed.
After leaving treatment, Branson did well for about five years. He graduated high school and enrolled at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where last month he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and fitness.
But along the way he relapsed, and this time, it was even more severe.
It was about two years ago, said Branson, noting the stress of college life and wanting to fit in played a role. A bigger contributor was trying to help a friend who was struggling with an eating disorder too.
“But that backfired, and I relapsed as well,” he said.
Five years earlier, Branson’s anorexia included having a distorted body image, where he saw himself as fat even though he was dangerously thin. This time around, Branson said he recognized how thin he was. The problem was that he liked the way he looked.
“I could see my bones when I looked in the mirror, and that was kind of pleasing to me,” he said.
“I knew it was bad, I shouldn’t be doing this, but that’s how powerful the disease is.”
Still, Branson recognized that he was in trouble and sought help for himself, but not before his weight had dropped to around 79 pounds.
“They didn’t know if I was going to make it the first few hours,” said Branson, who had been admitted to the hospital and put on a feeding tube to bring his weight back up.
It took awhile to get there safely, he said. A healthy weight for him, at 5 feet, 5 inches tall, is about 120 pounds.
After one week on the feeding tube alone, Branson slowly added eating small portions of food. After another week, the feeding tube was removed and he went to eating only normal food.
He returned to the same Kansas City treatment facility as before. He had left school in February and didn’t return until June.
Branson said his treatment included both group and individual counseling where patients talked about positive body image and cognitive behavioral therapy. There also were nutrition lessons to learn about healthy eating.
There were only three men total in his group sessions, said Branson.
Not Just a Female Disease
This fall Branson will begin a graduate program studying male eating disorders at University College London in England.
It’s a yearlong program where he will be learning the latest in treatment approaches, work clinically with people who have eating disorders and doing research. He’ll also attend seminars to hear people speak about eating disorders and visit hospitals to observe people recovering from eating disorders.
He hopes to develop new, more effective treatment for men suffering from eating disorders.
When he comes home, Branson plans to work with NEDA, National Eating Disorder Association, to establish an organization just for men who are struggling with eating disorders so they can support each other.
There is such an organization for men in the United Kingdom and Scotland already, he said, but none in America.
Many people are unaware that men can suffer from eating disorders just like women, said Branson.
“The statistics I’ve read put it at 10 percent of people diagnosed with eating disorders are men, but that’s probably a lot higher because a lot of men don’t acknowledge that they have it or ask for help,” he commented.
Sometimes even physicians may not initially recognize an eating disorder in men, said Branson.
“I feel like when males go to the doctor for help, even doctors kind of overlook an eating disorder as being the problem,” he said. “They think it might be something else, like depression.”
Even when he was receiving treatment for his eating disorder, Branson said there were many times he felt a little underserved.
“When we were in the group sessions, a lot of times it’s still, even with the staff who are heading the group, it’s still tailored toward women because they talk about women’s issues, like menstruation and stuff, and we’re kind of left out over here,” he remarked.
“We’re already outnumbered by women, but even in treatment, you kind of . . . feel ostracized. Men are not getting the same kind of attention, mainly because of the large number of women.”
Today Branson is healthy and happy. He is out of treatment, although he still occasionally has a phone session with a dietician, just to make sure he’s keeping up with what he should. He also occasionally talks with a counselor.
“The treatment I received is a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to really see the stigma of male eating disorders,” says Branson in a YouTube video about his experience.
“Surviving anorexia is an incentive for me to raise awareness about male eating disorders, and to get men the help they desperately need.
“I felt alone both before and during treatment,” he says. “I now know the importance of getting support and allowing yourself to be comfortable.”
Fear of Relapse
The fear of relapsing again is always in the back of Branson’s mind.
“I know it could happen, but I also feel . . . this is very important to me. I want to help other people with eating disorders . . . and I know if I relapse, I won’t be able to do that,” he said. “So that’s something that really keeps me going, knowing that if I relapse again, none of this is going to happen.”
Branson feels confident he would recognize the problem if it returned, and said now he has people he can reach out to before it would get too bad.
“I’m ready to move on to new and better things,” he said.
Branson recommends the NEDA website, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, to learn more about the types of eating disorders, how to recognize the symptoms, how to get help and more.
There can be different warning signs for men than women, but the general ones are the same for both:
• Weight loss
• Being body conscious
• Having no appetite
• Not being social, wanting to be alone more than usual
“Not eating and being depressed — that was something my mom would always point out, when I was struggling,” said Branson. “I wasn’t fun to be around. I never laughed, and I never found anything funny. I just had this mean look on my face the whole time.”
For parents or friends of someone struggling with an eating disorder, there are tips on how to approach the subject.
“Many people will deny it. They may even be in denial to themselves,” said Branson.
In spite of or maybe because of his issues with food, Branson said he decided to get a degree in nutrition and fitness. Now after all he’s been through, he’s even more motivated to work in the field.
“Nutrition has always been something I’ve been interested in, and after this, it’s become even more of an incentive because I want to help others,” he said.
In applying for UCL, Branson had to write a personal statement on why you wanted to apply and what you hope to do with it, so he shared his background and also his goals of starting a group for men in America.
Branson is spending his summer getting ready for his year studying abroad.
He’s filling out loan and grant applications, setting up a UK bank account and applying for a visa. He also established a GoFundMe.com site where people can make donations to help him achieve his dreams.
After just one month, he raised $707 donated by 14 people. He doesn’t have a goal for the site, because regardless of how much he raises, he still plans to study at UCL. He leaves at the beginning of September.
“I’ll take out a loan if I have to,” he remarked.
Branson admits he is concerned about traveling so far, especially for someone with a physical disability, but his parents will be going along with him on the initial trip, and he’s working with the university and their disability services.
“That takes off some of the pressure,” he said.
Branson said he recently found out he only has class twice a week, but he’s not sure how long the classes are and what kind of workload they will include.
“I could be bombarded with homework,” he said, with a smile. “After all, it is grad school.”