Eating Disorder Myths and Reality
When I think back to high school and my first years of college, I regret the time I lost to a common obsession: Not an hour went by without thoughts of food—what I ate, what I would eat, what I wouldn’t eat—and my body—how big it was, how much it weighed, how it looked, how I wanted it to look. I didn’t talk with anyone about these thoughts because I thought they were inevitable. I didn’t think I had a serious problem because every girl seemed to share my obsession. That’s how it was, I thought, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Sure I binged sometimes, but that was just a lack of self-control. Sure I went on extreme diets, but that was just to make up for the binges.
Because my behavior didn’t fit my understanding of an eating disorder, I didn’t ask for help until my third year of college when my eating had become so erratic my body started to shut down. To my surprise, I discovered through treatment that I didn’t have to live with self-loathing thoughts and self-punishing behavior. I found respect for my body and freedom from obsession. I might have found freedom years earlier if I hadn’t waited for the situation to become life-threatening before asking for help—if I’d understood how food and body obsession were already robbing me of a full life.
What you think you know about eating disorders might not be true. At best, misconceptions may be hurtful to individuals struggling with disordered eating. At worst, they may keep you or someone you know from getting needed help. Consider these six common eating disorder myths, and how a better understanding can bring hope and healing.
Myth #1: Eating disorders are primarily about food.
Just eat. This may be your intuitive response to someone who refuses food—or to someone who’s bingeing, just stop eating. These are among the least helpful comments you can make to someone with an eating disorder. Eating disorders have complex causes and cannot be willed away. If you are struggling with disordered eating, don’t deceive yourself into thinking you just need more willpower. Don’t beat yourself up when willpower fails. Find someone who can help.
Check out the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website for more information about the causes and treatment of eating disorders.
Myth #2: Eating disorders are a “white girl’s disease.”
Eating disorders affect individuals of all ethnic backgrounds and ages, and males have eating disorders too. The national Eating Disorders Coalition reports an increase in the prevalence of eating disorders among all ethnic and cultural groups. Disordered eating can begin in elementary school and is becoming more common among older women. And according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), males account for 10 to 15 percent of those diagnosed with eating disorders. Don’t dismiss your own or someone else’s struggle because it doesn’t match the picture you expect to see. Eating disorders are real and their consequences are serious no matter who experiences them.
For further reading, see NEDA’s collection of articles about eating disorders among diverse populations.
Myth #3: Body size is the best indicator of an eating disorder.
People of all shapes and sizes have eating disorders. While a low body weight is among the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, individuals with binge eating disorder are often obese, and those with bulimia can be underweight, overweight, or in between. What’s more, it’s difficult to judge weight by appearance. An emaciated look is cause for concern, but distress over food is a more consistent indicator that help is needed.
Read more about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders at the Eating Disorder Hope website.
Myth #4: People with eating disorders don’t want help.
While resistance to treatment is not uncommon, studies have found that as many as 80 percent of referred patients agree to receive help and remain in treatment through its completion. Other studies have found that individuals who received life-saving eating disorder treatment without their initial consent later expressed goodwill toward care providers. Don’t assume someone with an eating disorder will refuse your help. If they do initially refuse, don’t assume that nothing can be done.
Helpguide.org offers tips on helping someone with an eating disorder.
Myth #5: Eating disorders aren’t dangerous.
Don’t write off troublesome eating behavior as “no big deal.” Despite what you might read on pro-ana or pro-mia websites, there is no healthy way to embrace an eating disorder. Eating disorders are always damaging to your physical and mental health, and they can become fatal. For example, ANAD reports that young women with anorexia are 12 times more likely to die before age 24 than young women without anorexia. Take disordered eating seriously and ask for help. The earlier a person seeks treatment, the higher the likelihood of success.
Myth #6: You can never recover from an eating disorder.
According to statistics reported on the website Mirror-Mirror.org, 60 percent of those who receive eating disorder treatment experience full recovery, and another 20 percent experience partial recovery. Recovery can be a slow process, lasting several years and involving relapses and restarts. If you or someone you love is recovering from an eating disorder, have patience and hope. Find a provider and type of treatment that works for you. Recovery is possible and, with appropriate treatment, likely.
Read more about recovering from an eating disorder.
Eating Disorders Coalition: http://eatingdisorderscoalition.org/
Eating Disorder Hope: http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: http://www.anad.org/
National Eating Disorders Association: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/