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Q&A: Assistant Professor Kyle Ganson’s research addresses gaps in knowledge related to eating disorders and muscle-enhancing behaviours among boys and men

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Although eating disorders among women are extensively studied, they aren’t as well researched among boys and men, but new University of Toronto social work professor Kyle Ganson hopes to address this important research gap. Ganson specializes in exploring eating disorders and muscle-enhancing behaviors among boys and men, and recently moved to Canada from the U.S. to start a faculty position with U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. We caught up with Ganson via email to learn how he went from studying fine art photography at New York City’s School of Visual Arts to a career in social work.

Why did you start researching eating disorders in boys and men?
When I finished graduate school, I started working with adolescents. I joined a local eating disorder non-profit that ran low-cost groups, conducted assessments, and provided referrals. After running the group for two years, I realized that not one adolescent boy ever entered the group. At the time, I was also working at a residential treatment center for women with eating disorders. From these experiences, it was apparent that there were gaps in addressing the needs of boys and men.

You also study muscle-enhancing behaviours among boys and men. How is this related to eating disorders?
It is well understood that girls and women often seek a body image ideal that is thin, while boys and men often seek a body image ideal that is lean and muscular. These body image ideals often drive the behaviors people engage in: Women may seek diets and restriction, while men may seek excessive exercise and use of performance-enhancing substances.

Have adolescents and young men generally been overlooked in the research?
Yes. For example, by some accounts, less than one per cent of the research on anorexia nervosa has been conducted on boys and men. Of course, boys and men are a lot less likely to experience anorexia compared to girls and women, which presents certain issues when studying a small subsect of the population. But we are learning that eating disorders may also present themselves differently among boys and men. This ultimately impacts our ability to use eating disorder diagnostic measures, and clinicians may be less likely to screen for them among these populations.

How did your first degree in photography lead to a career in social work?
I initially saw myself as a fine artist and didn’t want to make commercial art to make a living. I did a lot of thinking and realized my art was mostly about connecting with people and trying to understand them. To do that, I had to build quick, trusting relationships. In many ways, my experience with photography and art is social work. Once I was able to name it, I looked into social work schools.

This year you’ll be teaching three courses. What do you hope the students take away from your courses?
Two of the courses, Elements of Social Work Practice and Social Work Practice Laboratory, are the first real introduction to social work practice for students. I really hope to use these classes as catalysts for students to develop their social work identity: Their practice style, their values as social workers, and their relationships to the clients they serve. This has always been my favorite aspect of teaching social work — and being a social worker — so I’m excited to be able to contribute to this process.

You recently published an article in the journal Pediatrics. What’s it about?
My colleagues and I found that the use of legal performance-enhancing substances in young adulthood was associated with future problematic alcohol use and risk behaviors, including binge drinking, engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence of alcohol, and experiencing legal problems while under the influence of alcohol. Our findings hint at potential adverse outcomes of using legal performance-enhancing substances. Men have higher rates of death and incur a greater burden associated with alcohol use compared to women. Boys and men are also more likely to use legal and illegal forms of performance-enhancing substances.

What most attracted you to the U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work?
The main attraction for me was the Faculty. I had amazing conversations with every social work Faculty member I met with when I came for my campus visit. I immediately felt the ambition, drive, and dedication that everyone had to generate important new knowledge, to educate the next generation of social workers, and to make the world a better place.

By Dominic Ali