Sarah M. Farrell
Not understanding what these common eating disorders are, why they exist, and what they actually look like in an individual can create a variety of issues. Misunderstandings about common eating disorders can create conditions in which determining whether or not you, or someone you love, has an eating disorder becomes a more convoluted process. Further, it can complicate someone’s willingness to get treatment.
As with most, if not all, mental illnesses, there are a lot of myths that surround the topic of eating disorders. These ideas can be propagated by slang and figures of speech. The media also exacerbates these types of misinformation.
A belief that an eating disorder is a disease based in vanity, for example, may cause shame that discourages seeking out and receiving treatment. Without treatment, individuals with eating disorders are unlikely to recover. And with eating disorders having the highest mortality rate among mental illnesses, treatment is absolutely crucial. This is just one example of why it is important to understand facts about mental illnesses without the coloring of myths and societal perceptions.
To that end, let’s explore some of the common myths about eating disorders and combat them with factual information with the goal of better understanding.
Myth #1: Eating disorders are visible externally.
A common myth surrounding eating disorders is that you will be able to spot individuals with an eating disorder. Why is this idea so prevalent? It’s likely that it stems from ideas about eating disorders that just aren’t accurate.
While it is possible that someone with an eating disorder may appear as if they have one, there can be issues inherent in making assumptions without knowing. For example, you might see a woman that is unbelievably gaunt. You think, “That just can’t be healthy.” Immediately, you whisper to your friend, “I’m just sure Sophie has an eating disorder.” Your friend mentions this casually to her mother, who happens to know Sophie’s mom. You can imagine how the information might grow from there.
There are many reasons why people are thin. There are other mental illnesses that can contribute to weight changes, such as weight loss. There are also a great number of health concerns that can cause someone to lose weight. In addition to ideas regarding thinness, it is important to remember that not all individuals—not even most, in fact—of individuals with eating disorders are thin. Many are of average weight. It is impossible to predict with 100% accuracy whether or not someone has an eating disorder just by looking at an individual.
Myth #2: All eating disorders are about weight.
Not all eating disorders are the same. And not all eating disorders are about weight. Eating disorders have a complicated etiology. They can have their roots in issues such as body dysmorphic disorder and an individual’s ideas about and over-evaluation of his or her own weight. However, it has also been found that certain personality types may contribute to the development of eating disorders. A need for control is believed to be a possible contributor. These individuals’ worries about their weight may not be a large component of the disorder.
Social factors may also be at play, including ideas culturally about what is considered attractive at a given time. For example, eating disorders have risen as thinner body types have become more en vogue. Parental factors have also been considered within conceptualizations of causes of eating disorders. Eating disorders are also commonly diagnosed in individuals who have other conditions, such as depressive disorders. All of those factors combined demonstrate the fact that eating disorders are not simple. So, yes, eating disorders do commonly revolve around weight, but there are so many other factors at play.
Myth #3: Only women have eating disorders.
It is extremely common to believe that eating disorders are a woman’s disease. And while women do outnumber men at a significant ratio, eating disorders are a disorder that can impact both men and women, and the numbers of men with eating disorders are steadily on the rise. It is estimated that men make up 25% of the population that will develop an eating disorder (Hudson, Hiripi, Pope, & Kessler, 2007).
The myth that it is only female individuals will develop eating disorders is harmful because it convolutes the process of males obtaining treatment. Parents of adolescent boys are unlikely to consider eating disorders as an issue about which they should be aware. Further, men who have eating disorders are less likely to seek out treatment if they have ideas that no one will believe them or it can’t be an eating disorder.
Myth #4: People with eating disorders should just choose to eat.
Just like anxiety, depression, or a heart condition, stopping an eating disorder is not as simple as “just fix it.” An eating disorder is a real mental health condition that is complicated to treat. And the idea that it is a simplistic disorder complicates an individual’s decision to get treatment. It can also complicate treatment a great deal.
Further, the physical ailments that eventually occur as a side effect of an eating disorder further muddle treatment seeking and outcomes. The idea that individuals with eating disorders should simply choose to eat is propagated by the myth that eating disorders are all about food, which we’ve already covered above. Eating disorders are a mental illness and should not be simplified in this manner. It just is not that simple.
Myth #5: Only young people have eating disorders.
This is a highly common myth. I would imagine that if you were to ask all of the people you know, most individuals would argue that anorexia is a mental illness that impacts young people. And so it does. However, though it is surprising to most people, eating disorders can impact people of any age. In fact, thirteen percent of women over the age of fifty engage in behaviors consistent with disordered eating (Gagne et al., 2012). It is widely believed to be a disorder that discriminates due to age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. However, this disorder can impact people across a diverse spectrum.
Myth #6: Bulimia and Anorexia are the only eating disorders.
Bulimia and anorexia are the most commonly discussed and possibly the best understood eating disorders. However, they are not the only ones, nor are they actually the most common. Binge-eating Disorder, or B.E.D., is the most common eating disorder. Other eating disorders include those “not otherwise specified.” Further, there are others that are not clearly defined diagnostically in the current diagnostic manual that may be further established in the future.
With eating disorders impacting an estimated thirty million people in the United States of all racial and ethnic groups (Hudson et al., 2007; Marques et al., 2011), it is crucial that we come to a better understanding of these disorders without the complication of added confusion. Myths add to the confusion and misunderstandings about eating disorders. This convoluted understanding can impact whether or not an individual will seek out treatment from the appropriate sources, and, ultimately, treatment outcomes.
If you or someone you love may be suffering from an eating disorder, seeking treatment can be difficult. However, it is crucial that individuals with eating disorders see a doctor and consider treatment options. If you believe you have an eating disorder and choose to seek treatment, our therapists at Seattle Christian Counseling can partner with you through your treatment, utilizing evidence-based treatments to aid in helping you further overcome an eating disorder. Recovery IS possible. Let us help you walk the path towards recovery.
Gagne, D. A., Von Holle, A., Brownley, K. A., Runfola, C. D., Hofmeier, S., Branch, K. E., & Bulik, C. M. (2012). Eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns in a large web‐based convenience sample of women ages 50 and above: Results of the gender and body image (GABI) study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(7), 832-844.
Hudson, J., Hiripi, E., Pope, H., & Kessler, R. (2007) “The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication.” Biological Psychiatry, 61, 348–358.
Marques, L., Alegria, M., Becker, A. E., Chen, C.-n., Fang, A., Chosak, A., & Diniz, J. B. (2011). Comparative prevalence, correlates of impairment, and service utilization for eating disorders across US ethnic groups: implications for reducing ethnic disparities in health care access for eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 44(5), 412-4120.
“Cherries,” courtesy of Roksolana Zasiadko, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Run,” courtesy of Jenny Hill, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Brussel sprouts,” courtesy of Keenan Loo, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Balance,” courtesy of Aral Tasher, unsplash.com, CC0 License