Nearly 50% of the population in the United States either knows someone who struggles with an eating disorder, or is a sufferer. Despite eating disorders being widespread, complex, and life-threatening, there is a ton of misinformation out there. These misconceptions can lead to shame, lack of recognition by helping professionals, school personnel, and even loved ones, not to mention hesitation to seek treatment.
In the spirit of building awareness about this difficult issue, below are a few common myths and facts that counter them. Awareness and early intervention are the most powerful weapons against this destructive disease.
Myth: Eating disorders aren’t that serious, and won’t cause significant damage.
Reality: Eating disorders are not simply a ‘phase,’ and serious implications for one’s health. All eating disorders can have severe medical complications, such as cardiac complications, poor bone health, infertility, and gastrointestinal distress. Eating disorders can also be fatal, in fact Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. Many professionals believe the current statistics are an underestimate because many deaths are not recorded as being caused by an eating disorder. Instead the cause of death is listed as a consequence of eating disorder behaviors, such as cardiac arrest.
Myth: Only white, teenage girls who are from upper class families have an eating disorder.
Reality: Eating disorders do not discriminate. They affect people of all ages, gender identities, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Eating disorders are seen across all socioeconomic groups.
Myth: You can tell if a person is struggling with an eating disorder by their appearance.
Reality: You can’t. Contrary to the way eating disorders are portrayed in the media, most eating disorders do not involve emaciation, which is often associated with anorexia. Those who struggle with bulimia, binge eating disorder, atypical anorexia, and subclinical eating disorders, often fall within a weight range that medical professionals consider to be ‘normal weight’ or ‘overweight.’ Simply put, one cannot determine a person’s health by their weight, and one cannot tell whether a person has an eating disorder by simply looking at them.
Myth: Eating Disorders are a choice.
Reality: They are not. Eating disorders are complex psychiatric and medical illnesses that are influenced by biological, psychological, and socio-cultural factors. Pursuing recovery is a choice, but is not straightforward. Recovery is not a simple choice to stop engaging in eating disorder behaviors. Lasting recovery takes time, and requires support and the appropriate treatment.
Myth: “I don’t have a ‘real’ eating disorder, so I don’t think I need, or deserve, help.”
Reality: Over the years, countless clients have shared their belief that they are not ‘sick enough’ and are hesitant to seek any type of therapy or nutrition support. They mistakenly believe that they ‘should be able to just get over it’ by themselves. Any type of eating disorder behavior or belief can lead to suffering and strained relationships. Research has shown that subclinical eating disorders are just as devastating, and can cause serious medical complications, significant psychological distress, and negatively affect relationships. Regardless of the type of eating disorder, or severity, treatment is warranted.
Myth: Most people never recover from an eating disorder.
Reality: Although it takes time and the appropriate supports, full recovery from an eating disorder is absolutely possible. One reason for the misconception that full recovery is impossible is the unfortunate reality that approximately 90% of people with an eating disorder do not receive adequate treatment. Without the support of an experienced eating disorder treatment team, chances for recovery are low. This highlights the importance of reaching out for help, regardless of what type of eating disorder, duration, or severity. The journey to recovery can take an extended period of time, and is full of ups and downs. However, the opportunity for a life free of disordered eating and body hate, is not only possible, but also worthwhile.
For more statistics and information on myths, the National Eating Disorder Association and The Eating Disorder Coalition are great resources: