When a condition is misunderstood, misconceptions form. Here 8 common myths and facts about eating disorders.
When conditions like eating disorders are frequently portrayed in TV and movies, there are bound to be some miscommunication and misconceptions. Even though many people know about eating disorders, they may not truly understand what eating disorders are, how they develop and what treatment methods are available.
Myths about eating disorders spread misinformation and make it harder for people to get the help they need. Consider these common myths about eating disorders and then understand the facts.
Myth 1: Eating disorders are a choice.
Fact: Eating disorders are a medical illness.
A combination of biological and social influences trigger eating disorders. Eating disorders are not caused by a conscious choice.
No one would choose to have an eating disorder, just as no one would choose to have cancer or to get in a severe accident. Eating disorders usually stem from a flawed view of one’s body and an unhealthy relationship with food.
People may think that eating disorders are a choice because they mistakenly believe the person could eat normally if they wanted. However, like addictions, once eating disorders begin, they often require professional treatment to resolve successfully.
Eating disorders are not a matter of will power or choice. It is about being stuck in a dangerous and unhealthy pattern.
Myth 2: Only women and girls have eating disorders.
Fact: Anyone can have an eating disorder.
Eating disorders affect people of every age, ethnicity, social class and gender. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 10 million males in the United States will experience an eating disorder during their lifetime.
Boys and men may show their eating disorders in ways that differ from their female counterparts, but they will have the same symptoms. Also, men may be more reluctant to admit their symptoms because eating disorders are viewed as a female problem.
Myth 3: You can tell someone has an eating disorder by looking at them.
Fact: People with eating disorders may look healthy.
You may think all people with eating disorders will look exceptionally thin and frail. Some people may fit this description, but it’s not always accurate.
Someone with anorexia, a condition marked by significant food restriction, will eventually get down to a dangerously low weight, but they may never show it due to how they dress. Someone with bulimia or binge-eating disorder may have an average, below average or above average body weight.
Not all eating disorders are the same, so it can be impossible to tell if someone has an eating disorder based on their appearance. Someone with a certain disorder could appear very similarly or very differently from someone with the same condition.
Myth 4: Negative media influence causes eating disorders.
Fact: The media’s role in eating disorders is exaggerated.
Media and other aspects of a person’s environment can influence them. What you see, hear, smell, touch or taste changes your perceptions and your ways of thinking. Images and messages about health and beauty surround everyone, but to say media causes an eating disorder is false.
A combination of factors unique to the individual cause eating disorders. Some of these factors are with the person from birth, and some are acquired along the way through life experience.
No one has been able to pinpoint one definitive cause of eating disorders, and media influence should not receive all the blame.
Myth 5: Families are to blame.
Fact: Families might be responsible, but not in the way you’d think.
Surely, parenting styles, bonding and attachment levels have lasting impacts on a person, but a relative’s actions do not cause eating disorders.
Mothers with eating disorders are more likely to have children with eating disorders, which could be due to the heritability of the condition. This connection means that eating disorders can get passed down through different generations of the same family.
However, parents who provide support, structure and love reduce the risks of eating disorders. In addition, parents can play a central role in treatment by attending sessions and reinforcing therapy skills at home.
Myth 6: Eating disorders are rare.
Fact: Eating disorders are more common than you might think.
Collectively, including all types of eating disorders, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services believes about 30 million people in the United States will have an eating disorder during their lifetime. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 1 out of every 20 people will have an eating disorder. That means an eating disorder will affect at least one student in every high school classroom.
Eating disorders often carry a level of shame, guilt and secrecy, so people are not eager to freely admit their problems with eating, body image and food, which makes identifying eating disorders problematic. Sadly, the guilt and shame deter people from seeking potentially life-saving treatment. In America, someone dies from an eating disorder every 62 minutes.
Myth 7: Eating disorders aren’t that serious.
Fact: Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening medical conditions.
People may think eating disorders are simple problems with simple solutions. They may believe that people with eating disorders can eat a healthy diet, exercise and get enough sleep to cure their disorder. The reality is much different.
Eating disorders are extremely dangerous and cause a host of adverse mental and physical health effects. Ultimately, eating disorders can result in death.
When eating disorders continue over time, a person may develop:
- Intestinal problems
- Brain damage
- Higher risks of stroke
- Increased likelihood of heart attacks
- Organ failure
The person with an eating disorder may look average and healthy on the outside, but their body suffers significant hardships from inconsistent or limited nutrition, which could lead to premature death.
Along with direct physical risks, people with eating disorders tend to experience high levels of depression and anxiety. These unwanted feelings frequently lead to suicide. People with eating disorders are much more likely to attempt suicide than their peers without eating disorders. This relationship is especially true with anorexia as suicide is the cause of death in about 20 percent of people with the disorder.
Myth 8: Recovery is almost impossible.
Fact: With treatment, recovery is possible.
Anyone with the signs or symptoms of an eating disorder should talk to a mental health professional as quickly as possible to receive a thorough evaluation and begin treatment. The sooner eating disorder treatment starts, the better the odds of recovery.
To achieve recovery from eating disorders, a person must invest time and energy in getting the needed nutrition while reducing the unhealthy weight loss practices like purging, excessive exercise or laxatives. To help, the person may engage in a combination of:
- Therapy – either individual, group or family sessions
- Medical care – physical evaluations to establish stability
- Nutritional counseling – meeting with a nutritionist to understand the foundation of a healthy diet
- Medications – using medications can reduce the occurrence of eating disorders as well as treating co-occurring conditions like anxiety or depression
It is essential to remember that treatment is not all the same for people with eating disorders. Each person needs treatment designed specifically for their symptoms, stressors and supports. Treatment can be challenging, but recovery is possible.
Having realistic expectations with eating disorder recovery is important as well. Similar to addictions, eating disorder recovery is a lifelong process with the possibility of setbacks occurring along the way. If you or a loved one experience an eating disorder co-occurring alongside a substance use disorder, call The Recovery Village today. Speaking to a representative is the first step toward a healthier future.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition.” 2013.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Eating Disorders.” (n.d.). Accessed on February 13, 2019.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. “Eating Disorder Statistics.” (n.d.). Accessed on February 25, 2019.
National Institute of Mental Health. “9 Eating Disorder Myths Busted.” February 27, 2014. Accessed on February 13, 2019.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Eating Disorders.” February 2016, Accessed February 13, 2019.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Busting 5 Myths About Eating Disorders.” March 1, 2018. Accessed on February 13, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.