Eating disorders Myths and Realities
Defined by abnormal eating habits, eating disorders (EDs) negatively affect a person’s physical and mental health. Obsession with food, exercise, body weight, shape, etc. are some of the common signs of eating disorders. A progressive disease, EDs are serious and often fatal mental illness that affects at least 30 million people across all age groups and genders in the United States. Considered to have the highest mortality rate of all the mental illnesses, eating disorders claim at least one American life every 62 minutes.
Given the widespread confusion and stigma surrounding mental illnesses in general, eating disorders are often misunderstood. The misunderstandings surrounding EDs often make it more difficult for individuals to seek professional treatment. To better understand the illness, listed below are some eating disorders myths and realities.
Myth: Eating disorders affect only teenage girls.
Fact: No, there is no age or gender bias in eating disorders. Young women and teenage girls are not the only victims of the disease. Though EDs are prevalent in girls during their adolescence, it can also be seen among young children and older adults irrespective of their age and gender. Usually characterized as “women’s problems,” the disease is gender neutral and equally affects boys and men who are often stigmatized from coming forward for a professional diagnosis or are left unaware that they too could be suffering from EDs.
Myth: Eating disorders are caused by bad parenting.
Fact: EDs are complex illnesses that are not chosen by people and are not caused by a parent’s behavior. Even children of healthy-eating parents are prone to the disease. Though biological factors play a key role in EDs, they commonly occur along with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression and social phobia. While parents do not cause EDs, they are crucial to their child’s recovery as they can help him/her to recognize the feelings in productive ways and create a recovery-promoting environment.
Myth: Eating disorders are about just wanting to be skinny.
Fact: It’s a popular myth surrounding EDs. The disorder is not caused by photo-shopped images in the media or simply by wanting to be thin. While many people are exposed to such images on a daily basis, only a few individuals get EDs. Those suffering from EDs are known to use food and unhealthy behaviors like dieting, binging or starving to cope with disagreeable and overwhelming emotions and stressful situations.
Myth: Eating disorders are just an extreme form of food abstinence to reduce weight.
Fact: Given the fear of gaining weight among many ED sufferers, it is quite common to mistake the disorder as an extreme form of dieting. In reality, eating disorders are not just dieting. Rather than choosing what to eat to lose weight, ED sufferers have little control over what to eat. Unlike dieting, EDs are not just about losing weight but psychological problems that are often used to cope with trauma, abusive relationships or loss of control.
Myth: Eating disorders are solely a problem with food.
Fact: Contrary to this opinion, EDs are not only about food. However, focus on healthy eating habits and a healthy body weight are essential for recovery. Though issues with food are a core factor for the disorder, food and weight issues are often the symptoms of a more serious underlying problem.
Myth: Bulimia is always associated with vomiting.
Fact: Characterized by a binge-and-purge behavior pattern, vomiting is just one of the methods of purging or eliminating the eaten food. In addition to vomiting, purging can take the form of laxatives, diuretics, fasting or exercising. In fact, over-exercising is also a form of purging in which sufferers often use exercise as a way to “burn off” the food consumed and feel guilty when not working out.
Myth: You can always tell someone has an ED by the person’s appearance.
Fact: People with EDs come in several shapes and sizes. In fact, their ED type has nothing to do with how they look. For example, not all anorexics will appear emaciated and it is also quite possible for those suffering from EDs to be of normal weight, overweight or underweight. It is also quite possible for a perfectly healthy looking individual to have ED issues. Therefore, one’s body weight and physical appearance cannot be used to assess his/her health.
Myth: Anorexics do not eat fattening food.
Fact: Though it is often assumed that people with anorexia do not eat high-calorie foods like sweets, chocolates and cakes, those with the disorder with a minimum calorie restriction can always choose to eat a bar of chocolate or give themselves a candy treat. However, once eaten, anorexics often experience guilt and may take other measures to make up for their lack of willpower.
Myth: Anorexics do not binge or purge, they simply avoid food.
Fact: Many people with anorexia will go on occasional binges and purges. However, the binge eating episode is often followed by an attempt to purge by over-exercising, vomiting or using laxatives. In fact, some anorexics become so fearful of a food item that they tend to purge whatever they have put into their system.
Myth: You cannot die from EDs.
Fact: People with bulimia, a form of ED, are at a high risk of death. In fact, bulimia is considered deadlier than other debilitating mental illnesses, including clinical depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. What contributes to its risk factors is the act of purging, over-exercising or using laxatives to get rid of the food eaten. While repeating vomiting can cause esophagus problems, low potassium or electrolyte imbalance may lead to cardiac arrest.
Myth: ED is a revenge disorder.
Fact: No one chooses to have an ED. As EDs are not planned disorders, the sufferers are not trying to hurt anyone or themselves by going through the illness. In fact, those suffering from EDs develop the disorder as a way to cope with their pain and distress. Knowing that their behavior or ED is hurting others is often upsetting for the sufferers.
Myth: Compulsive overeating or binge eating is not an eating disorder.
Fact: Binge eating or compulsively overeating excessive amount of food while being unable to stop the behavior is as serious as any other ED. Often associated with negative psychological and social problems, binge eating is not followed by purging episodes. A gender-neutral disease, binge eating can lead to obesity that can indirectly reinforce compulsive eating. The negative feelings that accompany overeating often leads one to continue to use food as a way to cope.
Myth: Binge eaters are just lazy people.
Fact: Just because someone is heavier or is seen eating unhealthy does not mean that he/she is lazy or unwilling to help himself or herself. Routinely dismissed as being lazy or greedy, binge eaters are emotional who use food to cope with difficult or stressful situations. Just as alcoholism compels one to drink alcohol, binge eating disorder compels one to eat. A recognized mental health illness, binge eating needs professional support and treatment.
Myth: It is impossible to have more than one ED.
Fact: It’s wrong to assume that one can only suffer from one ED. One can have more than one eating disorder. It is also quite possible for a person with one type of ED to have symptoms of another type of ED. For example, while it is possible for a compulsive eater to experience anorexia or bulimia some time, it is also possible for someone with anorexic symptoms to experience symptoms of bulimia at times and vice versa.
Myth: Only people of high socioeconomic status get eating disorders.
Fact: Not true. EDs affect people across all socioeconomic groups, irrespective of their age group, religion, gender and economic status. In fact, the disease has been spotted across richer and poorer countries across Asia, Africa and Americas.
Myth: EDs are a lifestyle choice, one can choose to stop having them.
Fact: EDs are serious mental illness no one chooses it. The illness with grave mental and physical consequences involves a great deal of suffering and becomes a person’s primary way of coping with intense emotions and difficult events. While someone can make a choice to pursue recovery, similar to any other mental illness, healing from EDs require professional treatment along with practicing healthier ways to cope with one’s emotions and manage stress.
Myth: Act of purging is an effective way to lose weight.
Fact: While ED sufferers often resort to purging methods to get rid of the food consumed, it is important to note that at least half of the food consumed during a binge typically remains in the body. While laxatives may give one an illusion of weight loss by stimulating a temporary loss of fluids, they do not help as they work on the large intestine whereas calories are absorbed in the small intestines. Over time, the binge/purge cycle affects the body’s metabolic rate and thereby contributes to an accelerated weight gain.
Myth: EDs are a result of over-controlling parents and dysfunctional families.
Fact: While over-controlling parents and dysfunctional families have often been blamed for eating disorders, research has proved that eating disorders are caused by a range of factors, including genetic, psychological and sociocultural. While over-controlling parents and dysfunctional families cannot be the sole factors behind an ED, they can definitely play an important role in helping a loved one recover. For this reason, most eating disorder programs for adolescents include family therapy as part of the treatment program.
Myth: It is almost impossible to fully recover from EDs.
Fact: Recovering from an ED requires patients to change their behavior, thought process, and the way they deal with stress, traumatic events and psychological problems. Therefore, while recovery from an eating disorder may take a long time, a complete recovery is possible. Given the complex nature of the illness, it is essential to seek professional treatment at certified mental health rehab centers.
Myth: EDs are easy to beat with food management.
Fact: A complex mental health illness, EDs involve extreme disturbances in eating behaviors. Often viewed as disorders related to food, the causes behind EDs go much deeper. At their core, EDs involve distorted, self-critical attitude about one’s weight and body image that is often accompanied by negative thoughts and feelings that further fuels one’s damaging behavior towards oneself. Simply put, EDs are more complicated than unhealthy dietary habits.
Myth: Eating disorders are not very serious.
Fact: Often misunderstood as a lifestyle choice or a diet gone too far, EDs are serious and potentially life-threatening mental illness. If left untreated, it can aggravate, leading to other serious medical problems that may prove fatal. Most of these medical problems are a result of malnutrition, weight-loss or self-harm techniques.
Myth: EDs only affect very thin people.
Fact: A grave misconception, it is often assumed that those at normal body weight cannot have an eating disorder with the disease only being associated with thin people. Although anorexia is characterized by extremely low weight, many people suffering from binge-eating disorder or bulimia nervosa tend to be normal weight or overweight. The misconception further contributes to misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis.
Myth: EDs do not affect men.
Fact: In reality, EDs affect people of all races, age groups and genders, regardless of sexual orientation. Similar to women and adolescent girls, males too get EDs and are at a risk of developing mental health illnesses in the absence of treatment. Usually seen as a women-only problem, men are often reluctant to confess having the illness and health professionals often fail to diagnose these illnesses.
Myth: Recovering to normal weight means the ED is cured.
Fact: Although weight recovery is essential in the treatment of anorexia nervosa, recovering to normal weight does not on its own signify a cure for the disease. Though a crucial step in treating EDs, weight recovery alone cannot guarantee that it’s cured. Considered to be far more complex, a comprehensive treatment for EDs involves a multidisciplinary approach comprising psychotherapy, nutritional management and lifestyle changes, among others.
Myth: Only gay men suffer from EDs.
Fact: A common misconception, males who suffer from EDs are not considered “real men.” In fact, one’s sexual preference has nothing to do with developing EDs. Many men develop EDs as a result of using steroids and other methods of controlling weight. Given the stereotypes about EDs, many men suffer in silence and are less likely to report their illness than women.
Myth: EDs are simply a way to get attention.
Fact: Often associated with vanity or an attention-grabbing behavior, those suffering from EDs often lack self-confidence and are simply taking steps to feel better about themselves. While they may appear to be self-absorbed, in reality they are struggling with an illness and are unable to control their every thought and action. Those suffering from EDs tend to hide a fact that they have a disorder and may not even recognize that they have a problem.
Myth: EDs are simply a phase, something that happens to adolescents.
Fact: No, it’s certainly not just a phase, but serious life-threatening mental illness. Often dismissed as a phase or something that one eventually grows out of, EDs are not just a result of diets gone wrong. Regarded as one of the most dangerous mental illnesses with the highest fatality rate, EDs must be taken seriously across all age groups, genders and sociocultural backgrounds.
Myth: EDs are all about beauty and appearances.
Fact: A complex mental health illness, EDs have little to do with appearance or beauty. Often attached to food and unhealthy eating habits, EDs are usually related to emotional issues such as control and low self-esteem, and often coexist with other mental health illnesses, like anxiety disorders, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Myth: Anorexia nervosa is the only serious ED.
Fact: Each eating disorder has its own set of physical and psychological complications that can be serious and life-threatening. While anorexia nervosa results in unhealthy and dangerous weight loss, other EDs such as bulimia nervosa can result in electrolyte imbalance and negatively affect the heart. Additionally, use of laxatives and excessive exercise can increase the risk of death in those suffering from bulimia.
Myth: EDs are caused by unhealthy and unrealistic images in the media.
Fact: Though sociocultural factors can contribute to the development of EDs, not everyone exposed to media images of the “thin ideal” develops to have an ED. Time and again, research has proven that EDs are caused by a host of factors combining biological, social and environmental aspects. In fact, cases of EDs like anorexia nervosa have been documented since the 1800s, at a time when the ideal shape for men and women differed significantly from today.
Commonly misunderstood in contemporary culture, eating disorders are serious and potentially life-threatening mental illnesses that not only involve substantial psychological damage and distress, but are also associated with other serious medical complications. While the mental illness affects a large number of people nationwide, many fail to understand the core issues surrounding the mental illness and often overlook the existing eating disorder myths and stereotype. It is imperative to address the prevalent eating disorders myths and realities associated with the illness.