Eating disorders are painful diseases for they affect on a physical, mental, and emotional level. Over time, these behavioral and mental conditions have been on the rise as a relevant topic that we should talk about.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), there are currently millions of people going through an eating disorder, approximately 5% of the population. This means that it’s most likely that we know someone who is struggling with— and we might be unaware of it.
However, more often than not, there have been common myths and misconceptions regarding the eating disorder. These misunderstandings contribute to the stigma that prevails around these mental illnesses.
And what’s worse, these errors can prevent people from seeking the help they need, compromise early detection and treatment, and put many lives at risk.
To help contribute to raising awareness about eating disorders, the first step is to debunk some of these ED myths by sharing facts verified by experts.
Myth: “Eating disorders aren’t serious illnesses”
Fact: Having an eating disorder is not “a cry for attention” or an act of “self-image”. Eating disorders are real. As said by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), they’re actually serious and often fatal illnesses.
Furthermore, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the go-to diagnostic reference for mental healthcare professionals, have clear diagnostic criteria for the following ED: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).
Likewise, saying that eating disorders are “no big deal” is far from the truth. Many organizations, like NEDA and Eating Recovery Center, affirm that EDs have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Statistics have shown that, without treatment, up to 20% of the critical cases are at risk of passing away.
Myth: “Eating disorders are a choice”
Fact: An eating disorder is not a lifestyle choice. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has stated that EDs are actually complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that patients don’t choose. It’s a mistake to think that a person who has an eating disorder did it out of vanity.
Beat, UK’s leading charity supporting those affected by an ED, has claimed that it’s complex mental health for there is no single cause. Instead, eating disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors.
Myth: “Eating disorders are a cry for attention”
Fact: Quite the opposite. A person with an ED may go to great lengths to hide, disguise, or deny their behavior. They may not recognize that there is anything wrong with their eating habits.
NEDA mentions that many eating disorder sufferers go out of their way to hide symptoms of their illness, either out of shame or because they are afraid someone will make them stop.
For example, some tend to hide their bodies under bulky or baggy clothes or avoid having their mealtimes with other people. It is important to know that some ED patterns aren’t easy to detect at first glance.
If you’re aware a loved one is struggling, it’s important to communicate concern with empathy and compassion.
Myth: “Eating disorders are just dieting phase”
Fact: Although diet culture can be a possible cause of developing an eating disorder, the American Psychiatric Association points out that this mental illness can also be triggered by other psychiatric afflictions, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and many more.
In addition, National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) mentions that there’s often a considerable period of time between an ED onset and first treatment— an average of approximately 4 years— and that an ED’s duration depends on its severity, diagnosis, and intervention.
Thus, an eating disorder is not a phase; it’s vital to seek professional help as soon as possible.
Myth: “Anorexia is the only serious eating disorder”
Fact: The American Psychiatric Association classifies five different types of eating disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition (DSM-5): Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder (BED), Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED).
According to NEDA , after examining the death rates of eating disorder patients, researchers found that bulimia and EDNOS (now OSFED) had mortality rates that approached the high rates seen in anorexia nervosa.
Although not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, awareness about orthorexia, an obsession with ‘healthy’ eating, is on the rise. A study published in Research Square shows that higher orthorexia (67% in men, 83.2% in women) symptoms were detected in individuals since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic.
Myth: “Eating disorders only affect teenage girls or young women”
Fact: No matter one’s gender, body shape, age, race, or socioeconomic status, eating disorders do not discriminate.
As said by InsideOut, though the peak period for the onset of an ED is between the ages of 12 and 25, and that women are at high risk, this has led to the widespread misconception that eating disorders only affect females.
It’s estimated that a third of people with an eating disorder are male. In fact, recent studies have found that Anorexia Nervosa is more common among males than previously thought.
Eating Recovery Center affirms that, because of this common myth, it can prevent accurate diagnosis of an eating disorder in a man, boy, or individuals from minority groups— even among healthcare experts.
Eating disorders cross all boundaries. No one is immune to these medical conditions.
Myth: “Only very thin people have an eating disorder”
Fact: You can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. People who suffer EDs come in all shapes and sizes. “Anorexia is associated with being underweight, but most people who struggle with eating disorders are a normal weight”, says Dr. Courtney Raspin.
There are many factors used by medical experts to detect an eating disorder. An ED diagnosis should never be based only on physical appearance. Center for Discovery mentions the following:
“Approximately 65% of individuals with bulimia nervosa have “normal” body weight or are considered overweight. Additionally, binge-eating disorder, orthorexia, compulsive overeating, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) do not have body types or weight restrictions included in the diagnosis”.
Myth: “Eating disorders are just about food”
Fact: While eating disorders usually involve an unhealthy obsession with calories, weight, or body shape, the symptoms of an eating disorder can extend far beyond food.
As mentioned by the Eating Recovery Center, restriction, bingeing, purging, or over-exercise behaviors usually signify an attempt to control something of substance in the individual’s life.
In addition, scientific studies have shown links between eating disorders, perfectionism, and obsessiveness, leading to a fixation on grades, sports performance, etc.
Myth: “Families are to blame for eating disorders”
Fact: There’s been a historic misconception that family members, especially parents, can cause eating disorders through their interactions. Yet, InsideOut explains that there’s no evidence that eating disorders are caused by particular parenting styles.
There is, however, evidence that eating disorders have a genetic basis and people who have family members with an eating disorder may be at higher risk. But remember, if this is the case, the family shouldn’t feel guilty; they had no control over the genes that their children inherited.
Besides, family and friends can actually play a crucial role in the care, support, and recovery of people with eating disorders. For instance, by creating an environment that promotes and supports recovery.
Myth: “It’s impossible to recover from eating disorders”
Fact: ED recovery is absolutely possible. Due to their complexity, recovery can take months or years. But, with the proper treatment, many people do recover. There are qualified professionals with a high level of commitment.
There are many ED recovery centers and organizations that affirm that a proper focus on eating, combined with adequate psychological therapies, are the initial steps towards treatment.
APA claims that “with proper medical care, those with eating disorders can resume healthy eating habits, and recover their emotional and psychological health”.
If you or someone you know is struggling with eating disorders, depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress and give professional aid and resources for crisis situations.