To honor Eating Disorder Awareness Month this February, I am busting common eating disorder myths so everyone can get a clear picture of how serious these types of disorders are.
1. Eating disorders are rare
It’s estimated that 11-24 million people in the United States and over 70 million people worldwide (North Dakota State University) suffer from some form of an eating disorder. These disorders are far from uncommon. Also anorexia and bulimia are not the only types of eating disorders. There are many other types of eating disorders, each with its own set of symptoms.
2. Eating disorders are not life threatening
Anorexia is considered the most deadly mental health disorder with an estimated 5%-20% perishing due to complications from the disorder. Other eating disorders can have major consequences on both physical and mental health. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating can put strain on the cardiovascular system, gallbladder, muscles, kidneys and there is a link between binge eating disorders and diabetes type II. Suicide risk increases exponentially in those with anorexia and bulimia.
3. People with eating disorders are choosing to be that way
Eating disorders are very serious mental health disorders; they are not a trend or the latest fad diet. As with most cases of mental health disorders, both genetic and environmental factors affect eating disorders. Regardless of what may be the cause of an eating disorder, people who are affected by such a disorder cannot will their symptoms away. Telling someone with anorexia to simply eat more is not helpful. Anorexia and other eating disorders need to be treated like the serious mental health conditions that they are.
4. Eating disorders only affect women
The phrase “eating disorder” usually conjures up images of very thin women, depriving themselves of food to fit into size 00 clothes. But that isn’t always the case as 10-15% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder are male. Binge eating disorder affects men the most with 40% of those diagnosed being male. Anorexia and bulimia are affecting men and boys more frequently and earlier in development than ever before. It has even been reported that boys as young as 8 years old have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. While the statistical majority of those with eating disorders are female, this mental health disorder is a serious issue that can affect both genders.
5. Eating disorders only affect the rich
While having an attractive appearance is considered one of the hallmarks of the rich and famous, eating disorders know no social class. Being raised in a lower or middle class household doesn’t make anyone immune to eating disorders. People often associate vanity with wealth but vanity is not the main underlying reason why someone might develop an eating disorder. Plus this way of thinking is flawed as eating disorders and physical thinness don’t always go together.
6. The media causes eating disorders
As stated above in #3, eating disorders, like most other mental health disorders, are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. While our culture’s favoritism towards slender women and physically fit men does have an impact on the eating habits of many people, media pressure may not be the only influence. For example, there is photographic evidence of women affected by anorexia in the Victorian Era, a time when women were strongly encouraged to have a full hour-glass figure. There are also scientific studies that have isolated a gene that is linked to a higher rate of eating disorders. This indicates there are other underlying causes for eating disorders than societal pressure.
7. You have to look unhealthy to have an eating disorder
Physical appearance does not indicate whether or not someone has an eating disorder. Not all people with eating disorders appear either extremely thin or extremely large and those with a very thin or very large body type don’t necessarily have an eating disorder either. People who appear “normal” or “healthy” can be suffering from unhealthy eating habits and negative thoughts about food or body image. Unhealthy behaviors are a better indicator if someone is at risk for an eating disorder than physical appearance. Warning signs of an eating disorder include a preoccupation with food, weight or body image, an unrealistic body image, a strong emotional response to food (either overly positive or negative) and withdrawal from social activities. To find out more about the warning signs for the different types of eating disorders, go here.
8. There is no hope for someone with an eating disorder
Recovery from an eating disorder is very much possible. There are many treatment options available depending on the specific needs of the individual who is suffering. Don’t forget how important family support is to someone with an eating disorder. Family and friends can serve as helpful allies as their loved one makes progress on the path to recovery. If you or someone you know would like more information on eating disorder or mental health resources, contact one of our Resource Specialists.