There’s a common misconception that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice due in part to our culture’s current obsession with food and weight. The country’s increase in the obesity rate and Western culture preference for thinness has led to disordered eating in many individuals, but there’s a major difference between ‘fad dieting’ and eating disorders.
Eating disorders are extremely complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that are often fatal.
Myth 1. Eating disorders are caused by the media
Many people are exposed to the media’s perception of beauty on a daily basis, yet only a small percentage of them actually develop an eating disorder. It’s estimated that 30 million people will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime but not all of those individuals’ experiences will manifest into an illness. Most teenage girls have engaged in disordered eating, believing that it will help them achieve the ideal body. Typically, the duration of acting on this belief is short-lived due to the lack of results; demonstrating that eating disorders aren’t an aspect of dieting. Instead, they are serious disorders with extreme underlying causes (with the largest cause being psychological, such as the act of purging as a way of control, and the obsession with exercise and food).
Myth 2. Anorexia is the only life-threatening eating disorder
While anorexia is the most fatal mental illness, there are severe health consequences within each disorder. Even for patients whose eating disorders don’t prove fatal, there are often medical complications associated with starvation and purging, like bone disease, cardiac problems and gastrointestinal distress. Additionally, about 90% of individuals with eating disorders also suffer from depression and other mood-related disorders. This has resulted in a high suicide rate among the eating disorder population (with anorexia having the highest rate of completed suicide and bulimia with the greatest number of attempts), causing eating disorders to have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders.
Myth 3. Someone can choose to stop having an eating disorder
Someone can make the choice to pursue recovery, but the act of recovery itself is a lot of hard work based on an individual not acting on symptoms. In most cases, the eating disorder has become the person’s primary way of coping with intense emotions and difficult life events. In order to heal from the disorder, the individual must reshape their thinking (achieved through cognitive behavioral therapy) and learn how to eat normally again (with the help of nutritional rehabilitation). Additionally, they must learn and practice healthier ways to manage stress.
Myth 4. Men don’t get eating disorders
Men represent as many as 40% of the population with binge eating disorder
About 1 in 3 people struggling with an eating disorder is male and disordered eating behaviors (including binge eating, laxative abuse and fasting for weight loss) are nearly as common among men as they are among women. There are numerous studies on male body image with results finding that many men have misconceived notions about their weight and physique, placing an importance on muscularity. Due to this, muscle dysmorphia, a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder, has become an emerging condition primarily affecting male bodybuilders. Such individuals obsess about being adequately muscular. Compulsions include spending many hours in the gym, squandering excessive amounts of money on supplements, abnormal eating patterns or use of steroids.
Myth 5. Purging is an effective way to lose weight
Purging does not get rid of the ingested food in the body. At least half of what is consumed during a binge typically remains in the body even after self-induced vomiting. Due to this, purging does not cause weight loss nor prevent weight gain. In fact, over time, the binge/purge cycle can contribute to increased or accelerated weight gain as it affects the body’s metabolic rate. Additionally, laxatives do not prevent the body from absorbing calories since they only affect the large intestine and most calories are absorbed in the small intestine. For these reasons, many people with bulimia are average or above-average weight.
Myth 6. You can tell if someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them
The term ‘lollipop head’ has been used to described individuals with anorexia, mostly due to the illusion of their body being too small in proportion to their head. Yet this isn’t always the case as individuals with eating disorders come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They can be underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese, and they often fluctuate in weight. Even athletes who appear to be in top physical shape may be struggling with an eating disorder.
- Berman, LCSW-C, Rebecca. Eating Disorders and Suicide. Eating Disorder Hope. 2019.
- Eating Disorder Facts & Myths. The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. Eatingdisorder.org. 2015
- Eating Disorders in Men & Boys. National Eating Disorders Association. 2018