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Busting 7 Common Myths About Eating Disorders

Woman having fun with her daughter while preparing food in the kitchen.

Despite the increased awareness of different types of eating disorders in recent years, there are still many misconceptions about what exactly an eating disorder entails.

Not only are these misconceptions harmful to those with eating disorders, but they also further stigmatize the issue, making it more difficult for people to identify whether or not they may be struggling with disordered eating behaviors. In order to break down the stigmas surrounding eating disorders and promote more accurate awareness of the issue, it’s essential that these myths are addressed.

In order to stop the spread of misinformation and make it easier for people to get the help they need, let’s debunk 7 of the most common myths surrounding eating disorders.

  1. Fact: Eating disorders are dangerous medical conditions that should be taken seriously

Myth: Eating disorders are not serious illnesses that require medical and psychological intervention.

A common misconception about eating disorders is that they’re not that serious of an issue and can be easily fixed. Moreover, some believe that people with eating disorders can quickly return to eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise to “cure” their disorder. Unfortunately, the reality is not that simple.

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders are very serious and among the deadliest of mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose. Any type of eating disorder can result in extremely dangerous mental and physical effects, sometimes even leading to premature death. Furthermore, people with eating disorders may also experience a wide range of other health issues such as intestinal problems, a decrease in heart health, and organ failure.

Alongside the physical health risks, eating disorders are often associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety, and people with eating disorders are also statistically more likely to attempt suicide.

  1. Fact: Anyone can have an eating disorder, regardless of gender, age, or any other factor

Myth: Eating disorders only affect young women or teenage girls.

When exploring eating disorders in the media, they’re most commonly showcased as being issues only for teenage girls or young women. However, this is not the case. It’s important to remember that anyone can experience any type of eating disorder, regardless of age, gender, weight, race, social class, or any other demographic.

Accordingly, contrary to popular belief, males represent 25% of individuals with anorexia nervosa, and they are at a higher risk of health issues and death. In part, this is due to the stigma that eating disorders only affect women, causing men to often receive much later diagnoses.

Although boys and men may display their eating disorders in different ways than girls and women, their disordered eating symptoms still remain the same. On top of this, due to the stigma placing young women at the center of eating disorder diagnoses, boys and men may feel less inclined to reach out for help when struggling.

  1. Fact: Numerous biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors contribute to eating disorders

Myth: Eating disorders are just about food choices and rigorous dieting.

While eating disorders may generally involve a fixation on body size/shape and eating habits, these illnesses really stem from a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. Usually, disordered eating behaviors such as restricting, binging, or purging signify an attempt to gain control when the person is unable to control some other aspect of their life.

When loved ones notice signs of disordered eating behaviors, their most common response typically is along the lines of “just eat more” or “just eat healthier.” In reality, eating disorders cannot be “cured” by simply changing your eating patterns. To achieve full recovery, people with eating disorders often need a combination of psychiatric, therapeutic, and dietary care to fully address all symptoms that are present.

  1. Fact: You cannot simply ‘choose’ to have an eating disorder

Myth: Eating disorders are a ‘choice’ someone makes from having strong willpower and discipline around dieting and food.

Another common myth about eating disorders is that they’re a conscious choice; however, they usually stem from both psychological and social influences that lead to a negative relationship with food. People may mistakenly believe that someone with an eating disorder could eat normally if they wanted to. In reality, eating disorders often require professional treatment to reach full recovery.

On top of this, eating disorders are often not an isolated diagnosis, with many people also struggling with co-occurring disorders like anxiety, depression, or other mental health difficulties. In fact, one study of over 2400 patients hospitalized for eating disorders revealed that 97% had at least one or more co-occurring conditions.

It’s also important to recognize that people don’t choose to have an eating disorder as part of a ploy to gain attention. Instead, eating disorders result from a destructive pattern of unhealthy eating patterns and behaviors over time.

  1. Fact: Eating disorders look different for everyone

Myth: You can tell just by looking at someone if they have an eating disorder (based on the stereotype that all people with eating disorders are underweight).

The media falsely portrays people with eating disorders as all looking exceptionally thin and underweight. Although some people may fit this description, the reality is that anybody can have an eating disorder, including people who are a normal weight or overweight. In actuality, less than 6% of people diagnosed with eating disorders are medically classified as being “underweight.”

Even someone with anorexia nervosa, which is characterized by severe food restriction and low body weight, may never show how low their weight is due to how they dress. Furthermore, people with bulimia or binge eating disorder can be of below-average, average, or above-average weight and still be struggling.

  1. Fact: Eating disorders are more common than you may think

Myth: Eating disorders are rare and don’t seriously affect that many people.

Collectively, 9% of the U.S. population, or approximately 28.8 million Americans, will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime (taking into account all different types). The misconception that eating disorders are rare, in part, stems from the idea that they only occur in very thin women. Understanding how eating disorders can look widely different for each person struggling is key to breaking the stigma that these are rare illnesses.

Another reason why eating disorders are perceived as rare is because many people don’t feel eager or comfortable reaching out for help or admitting they have a problem. Sadly, eating disorders often result in feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation, which often make disordered eating behaviors quite challenging to identify.

  1. Fact: With treatment, lasting recovery is fully achievable

Myth: People with eating disorders can never be fully recovered.

If you or a loved one is experiencing signs or symptoms of an eating disorder, it’s crucial to consult a mental health professional right away to prevent the condition from worsening. It’s always best to start treatment as soon as possible, as this will increase the odds of achieving a successful, lasting recovery.

When first entering the recovery process, one must be prepared to invest hard work, time, and energy into getting healthier both physically and mentally. This is typically completed with the support and guidance of an eating disorder treatment team. A person’s treatment team may consist of a combination of:

  • Therapy: Individual, group, or family sessions to process thoughts and feelings
  • Nutrition support: Meetings with a nutritionist to establish a healthy and balanced meal plan
  • Psychiatric care: Assessments to address co-occurring disorders and medications, when necessary
  • Medical care: Physical evaluations to ensure medical stability

Not sure if you have an eating disorder? Take our eating disorder screener to get a better idea of whether you or a loved one may be exhibiting symptoms.

Bottom Line

Eating disorders have long been misunderstood, but understanding these common misconceptions and the truth behind them is the next step in breaking the stigma. We hope this information encourages more people to seek the help they deserve to increase their chances of achieving a lasting, successful recovery.

If you believe you or a loved one may be experiencing an eating disorder, don’t wait to reach out. Schedule a free consultation to see how VERY’s compassionate eating disorder team can help support you in your recovery journey.