Many pervasive myths contribute to the stigma and prejudice that people with eating disorders can experience.
At least 30 million people in the United States have an eating disorder. Despite their prevalence, several myths and misconceptions about these conditions persist.
To understand more about eating disorders and to reduce prejudice, it is crucial to distinguish the myths from the facts.
In this article, we look at some of the most persistent myths about eating disorders and provide the facts that debunk them.
Fact: Eating disorders affect both sexes.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 1 in 3 people who have an eating disorder are male. NEDA also note that in the U.S., 10 million males will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
Furthermore, disordered eating behaviors — such as binge eating and laxative abuse — are almost as common among men as among women.
However, men are less likely than women to seek treatment for an eating disorder, which may help reinforce this particular myth.
Some men may not seek help precisely because they believe that people see these conditions as “feminine.”
Fact: Eating disorders affect people of all ages.
There is a belief that teenagers — especially teenage girls — are the group most at risk of eating disorders.
Although research indicates that the average age of onset for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is 18 years, these disorders can develop at any age, including in childhood.
According to a study in the journal Pediatrics, the incidence and prevalence of eating disorders in children have risen significantly in recent decades. In some cases, children as young as 5 or 6 years of age are receiving eating disorder diagnoses.
Older adults can also have eating disorders. While some may develop a disorder later in life, others carry it from their childhood or teenage years into adulthood.
Fact: People develop eating disorders for a variety of reasons, but getting attention is not typically one of them.
Eating disorders do not begin as a conscious choice. Some people develop eating disorders as a way of coping with something negative in their life, such as trauma, bullying, or bereavement.
Other factors, including genetics and psychological health, also influence the development of an eating disorder.
Usually, people with an eating disorder try to hide their condition from others rather than use it to get attention. For example, people with anorexia may wear baggy clothing to hide their weight loss.
Fact: Eating disorders are a medical illness, not a choice.
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Genetic, biological, and sociological factors play a role in the onset of eating disorders, and these conditions often run in families.
Those with an eating disorder often have a co-occurring mental health issue, such as:
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- substance use disorder
Eating disorders affect a person’s physical and mental health, and they can be life threatening.
Fact: Many people with an eating disorder are not underweight.
While the media appear to portray everyone with an eating disorder as being underweight, this is not the case. It is not possible to tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them.
While some eating disorders typically cause weight loss, others do not. For example, the hallmark of binge eating disorder (BED) is periods of overeating without purging.
Some research indicates that approximately 70% of those who meet the criteria for BED have obesity.
Even when food restriction characterizes an eating disorder, it does not mean that everyone with the disorder will be underweight.
For example, it is possible to have atypical anorexia, which involves having the cognitive features and physical complications of the condition without being underweight.
This myth is particularly damaging because it may stop some people with an eating disorder from seeking treatment because they fear that they do not look unwell.
Fact: Eating disorders are not just about food.
Eating disorders are a mental health issue. They are not just about food.
Therefore, although forming healthful eating practices is an important component of recovery, it is not the only aspect of treatment.
People with an eating disorder may also need to work on any issues that contributed to the development of the disorder in the first instance.
In addition to a registered dietitian, a person may also see a psychotherapist to build their self-esteem, learn coping mechanisms and stress management techniques, and resolve any past trauma.
Fact: Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible.
With treatment, it is possible to make a full recovery from an eating disorder. Of those who do not make a full recovery, most will see an improvement in their condition.
According to Beat, a British charity for people with eating disorders, 46% of those with anorexia will make a full recovery, and another 33% will see an improvement in symptoms. Similarly, 45% of people with bulimia will make a full recovery, while another 27% will improve considerably.
Recovery time varies. Some people will get better quickly, whereas others may need more extended treatment.
Self-care, meal planning, and regular appointments with doctors and mental health professionals can help those in recovery avoid relapse.
People who think that they or a loved one may have an eating disorder should speak to their doctor. Doctors take eating disorders seriously, and they do not buy into the myths surrounding these conditions.
A doctor will help a person find the most appropriate combination of treatments for them.
The type of eating disorder and the person’s health history and personal circumstances will determine the treatment plan.
Many myths about eating disorders persist. Knowing the facts can help people be more understanding and provide better support for people dealing with these serious conditions.
Eating disorders affect people of all sexes, ages, and body types. They can arise from a combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors.
Recovery from eating disorders is possible, and most people will see improvements with the right treatment.
The first step on the road to recovery is to see a doctor for a diagnosis.