Challenging Common Eating Disorder Myths and Stereotypes

Young adult with short hair and glasses sits on floor against wall, legs out, looking up thoughtfully with serious expressionWhat do you know about eating disorders?

Much of what we hear or learn about disordered eating habits is based on myths and stereotypes rather than facts. If people don’t have accurate information about eating disorders, it may be harder to get help.

To draw awareness to this serious mental health concern, we have collected—and corrected—some of the more common myths about eating disorders.

Eating Disorder Myths and Facts

Myth: I am not anorexic or bulimic, so I can’t have an eating disorder. 

Fact: There are many types of eating disorders. 

The umbrella of eating and food issues covers several different types of disordered eating habits and behaviors. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are among these, but there are others. Any of these can cause distress or have serious physical and/or mental health consequences. There are six eating disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID)
  • Pica
  • Rumination

Other eating and food issues might include extreme dieting or orthorexia nervosa, among others.

It’s possible to experience disordered eating habits without having any specific eating disorder diagnosis. Even if you don’t meet criteria for a diagnosis of any specific eating disorder, a counselor can help you address these behaviors and explore ways to make positive changes. If food causes distress, it’s important to seek help. Eating issues can have serious effects on emotional well-being as well as physical health.

Myth: It isn’t that big of a deal if I skip a few meals or purge after a big meal. 

Fact: Eating disorders are complex illnesses that have a serious impact on health over time. 

While it may be true that missing a few meals may not cause immediate harm, a pattern of disordered eating can have an impact on every part of the body. Not getting enough nourishment can cause the body to break down its own tissue. Purging can lead to electrolyte imbalance. Binge eating can cause stomach rupture. Other symptoms may include fatigue, nausea, bacterial infections, constipation, fatigue, fainting, dizziness, and more. Without treatment, eating disorders may lead to organ failure and eventually death.

It’s possible to experience disordered eating habits without having any specific eating disorder diagnosis. Even if you don’t meet criteria for a diagnosis of any specific eating disorder, a compassionate and qualified counselor can help you address these behaviors and explore ways to make positive changes. 

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue, though the actual death rate varies between studies.

  • In the United States, about one person dies each hour as a result of an eating disorder.
  • Among people with anorexia, one in every five deaths is by suicide.
  • The estimated mortality rate for anorexia is about 10%.

Myth: You can tell a person has an eating disorder by looking at them. 

Fact: It’s not always apparent someone is struggling.

Just like with any other mental health issue, it isn’t possible to tell a person is in distress just by looking. Further, it’s never a good idea to make assumptions about a person’s size. A person who has anorexia may be at a weight medically considered to be unhealthy. But this is not always the case. People of any weight or size might have eating disorders. People may struggle with disordered eating habits in silence because they don’t appear “too thin.” This does not mean they are not in distress. But stigma or assumptions may prevent them from seeking help.

Some people may develop disordered eating habits if they are judged or shamed for their size. But this is not true for every person with an eating disorder. There are many factors that play a part in the development of eating disorders.

If you are concerned you or a loved one may have an eating disorder, reach out. A qualified therapist or counselor who has training in eating and food issues can help. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline is also a good place to find resources and support. You can reach this helpline at (800) 931-2237. You can also text NEDA to 741741 or use Click-to-Chat at the NEDA website.

Myth: Eating disorders are a choice. The people who have them just want attention!

Fact: People might develop an eating disorder due to a combination of factors. Eating disorders are not fads or phases, and they should be taken seriously. 

Exactly what causes eating disorders isn’t entirely clear. Many factors may combine and lead to the development of an eating disorder. Among these factors are:

Other genetic or environmental factors may also contribute to eating issues. Each person’s circumstances are different. It’s also important to note that although family history can be a factor, parents typically do not “cause” eating disorders. In fact, they can often be very helpful during recovery.

Myth: Only rich, white teenage girls have eating disorders!

Fact: Eating disorders affect people of all ages, races, genders, and backgrounds. 

Eating disorder research shows anyone can have an eating disorder. Inaccurate information about who might have an eating disorder can prevent people from getting help. Current research shows eating disorders are most common in females, but more and more males and nonbinary people are seeking eating disorder treatment.

  • Disordered eating behaviors including purging, fasting, binging, and laxative abuse are almost as common in males as they are in females.
  • Among people with anorexia, 25% are male. But when people assume boys and men don’t develop eating disorders, they may be diagnosed later, or not at all. Thus, they have a higher risk of death from anorexia.
  • 16% of transgender college students self-reported an eating disorder. In 2015, a study of college students found that trans students were most likely to have been diagnosed with an eating disorder in the previous year.
  • Black teens are 50% more likely to have bulimia than their white peers. But women of color are less likely to receive an eating disorder diagnosis, since some health care providers may subscribe to the myth that only white women have eating disorders. As a result, people of color may be less likely to receive, or even seek, treatment.
  • Statistics often under-represent ethnic minorities, so eating disorder prevalence may be even higher.

Myth: You can’t recover from an eating disorder unless you know what caused it.

Fact: Evidence does not show that eating disorder recovery depends on understanding the cause.  

Some people can identify a cause, factor, or moment when disordered eating habits began. Others may be able to describe a pattern of thinking behind the eating disorder. But many people never know the specific reason, cause, or factor behind an eating disorder. Treatment can still be successful without this knowledge.

Eating disorder treatment focuses on the symptoms a person experiences and the health consequences of disordered eating behaviors. Both psychotherapy and nutritional counseling are part of eating disorder recovery. A person may never fully recover from an eating disorder. Treatment may also take a long time. Treatment approaches can vary, and what works for one person may not work for another. Recovery, and recovery progress, will differ from person to person. Treatment outcomes may be better the earlier a person gets help, so it’s important to reach out if you struggle with disordered eating habits.

Eating disorders are serious conditions. It is often challenging to recover from an eating disorder. But you are not alone. Help is available. If you believe you may have an eating disorder, or if you are concerned for a loved one, please reach out or encourage your loved one to seek help. There is no shame in having an eating disorder. With the support of a compassionate counselor, recovery is possible for everyone.

References:

  1. Busting the myths about eating disorders. (2018). National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/busting-myths-about-eating-disorders
  2. Eating disorder facts and myths. (2015). The Center for Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://eatingdisorder.org/eating-disorder-information/facts-myths
  3. Eating disorder myths. (2016). National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/toolkit/parent-toolkit/eating-disorder-myths
  4. Eating disorder statistics. (2018). National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Retrieved from http://www.anad.org/education-and-awareness/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics
  5. Ekern, J. (2018, February 8). Anorexia nervosa – Highest mortality rate of any mental disorder: Why? Eating Disorder Hope. Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/anorexia/anorexia-nervosa-highest-mortality-rate-of-any-mental-disorder-why
  6. Health consequences. (2018). National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences

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