Eating disorders are serious diseases that have the highest mortality rate out of all mental health disorders. At least 30 million individuals of all ages and genders in the United States are diagnosed with an eating disorder, which is about 8% of the population. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) are the four most common eating disorders according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
The superficial drive to be thin and pretty is continually pressed into our society by the media, and although social elements do play a part in the development of eating disorders, these mental health disorders are multifactorial – meaning more than one factor is responsible. There are many myths surrounding eating disorders that are passed around society through the media and also by word of mouth, and it’s not only important to educate the public regarding eating disorders but also to debunk these popular myths as well.
Myth #1 – You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder.
There are so many things wrong with this theory. First of all, not all eating disorders have a body image component. For example, Binge Eating Disorder is an eating disorder in which the behaviors do not stem from a desire to lose weight.
Secondly, eating disorders are not biased towards a certain body shape or weight. They come in all shapes, all sizes, and all weights. The number on the scale does not indicate whether an individual is suffering from an eating disorder.
Myth #2 – Eating disorders are a lifestyle choice and are all about self-image.
The desire to lose weight is an expression of the disorder, not where the disorder stems from. Even though some eating disorders may seem like it’s all about and only about losing weight, there are much deeper issues that are really going on within the individual that you cannot visibly see, and it’s possible the person suffering doesn’t even see it either.
Many eating disorders develop as a coping mechanism. Whether it’s coping with low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy, family problems, past traumas, etc. – many individuals, in hopes of having some type of control over their seemingly messy lives, turn to more restrictive types of eating disorders. Others find themselves numbing the pain of their problems through binge eating.
There is no straightforward explanation for why eating disorders happen, but in many ways, genetics, biochemistry, history, psychology, and culture all contribute and play a part.
Myth #3 – Only young adolescent females suffer from eating disorders.
While EDs are more common amongst young females, it should be understood that many males still suffer from them as well. About one-in-three people struggling with an eating disorder are male. ONE IN THREE! This equals out to 20 million women and 10 million men that are affected by this disorder. Also, subclinical disordered eating behaviors are nearly just as common among men as they are among women, but because there is so much cultural and gender bias, men are much less likely to speak up and seek help for their eating disorder.
Myth #4 – Eating disorders have a simple solution.
Eating disorders are not simple. They are very complex. They do not go away simply by “just eating” or “just stop eating”.
They require work. You can’t just wake up the day after a big knee injury and say, “Okay, I’m all better. Time to run a marathon.” It doesn’t work like that. You gotta put in the work, get the necessary medical treatment, go to physical therapy, retrain and strengthen the leg muscles, stretch, ice, and repeat.
It’s a long, hard rehabilitation process to come back from a big injury, just like it’s a long, hard treatment process to come back from an eating disorder. Eating disorder treatment often involves a combination of psychological and nutritional counseling along with medical and psychiatric monitoring. There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s a challenging process and far from “easy”.
Myth #5 – Anorexia is the only serious eating disorder.
ALL eating disorders are dangerous. They slowly take over your mind until you’re so preoccupied with food and weight issues that you find it harder and harder to focus on other aspects of your life. They can take over a person’s life and lead to serious, potentially fatal medical complications.
When an individual suffers from any type of eating disorder, their mind becomes a battlefield, food scares them, voices tell them they aren’t good enough. Eating disorders don’t always mean never eating and exercising every possible minute. So many people who are struggling aren’t underweight, but their pain is still just as real.
Please understand this – an eating disorder is not defined by the number on the scale; it is defined by the mind of a person. Eating disorders are intricately complex and very dangerous. They can affect anyone of any gender, race, age, or ethnic background.
Eating disorders don’t discriminate.
If you have issues around food, big or small, please seek help. If you spot signs in a friend that you are worried about, please speak to them. Just ask if they are okay. It is okay to care and show your concern. This is a prevalent illness and is more than worthy to be talked about. So, I urge you to start the conversation today. But please, if you notice a friend or loved one struggling with food, do not say “just eat”.
For immediate help and support, you can connect with a live, trained NEDA Helpline volunteer by calling (800)-931-2237, or by following the link and clicking on the “Click-to-Chat” option, or simply by texting “NEDA” to 741741.