Eating disorders are sadly misunderstood. There is widespread confusion and even stigma surrounding mental health in general, but add in the fact that eating disorders can be so visible and it’s no wonder sufferers can find their illness compounded by a lack of understanding from those around them.
To spread awareness of eating disorders, we’ve put together some truths & myths about eating disorders to help ED sufferers and the people in their lives.
Myth 1 : Eating Disorders are selective to young women
Eating disorders do not discriminate – they affect any gender, any age, across all racial, ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Furthermore sexual orientation has no correlation with developing an eating disorder. We all eat. We all have bodies. In fact, 1 in every 4 eating disorders cases are male.
Some people think eating disorders are only an issue among younger women, but the most rapidly growing group of individuals developing eating disorders are women in midlife. Unfortunately, eating disorders are also developing earlier now as more children are exposed to harmful messages and being taught to nurture an internal bully.
Myth 2 : You can tell if someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them
Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are characterised by a complex relationship with food, weight, exercise & the body. These complexities can apply to anyone regardless of their size and shape. Individuals with eating disorders can appear underweight, normal weight or overweight – you don’t have to appear emaciated to have an eating disorder. You cannot determine whether someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them or how much the scales show they weigh. Many sufferers continue to struggle to get diagnosed as they look “normal” and their BMI is not low enough. We are constantly working to change this.
Myth 3 : People with eating disorders are attention seeking - their eating disorder is a matter of choice or lifestyle
Definitely not. The majority of eating disorder sufferers do whatever they can to hide their eating disorder in order to keep it a secret. They may feel ashamed and have low self esteem. What they really need is understanding and compassionate support without judgement as well as medical and psychological help.
People do not choose to have eating disorders. They are complex mental illnesses which develop over time and can be caused by a combination of biological, social, psychological, interpersonal or environmental factors. The eating disorder becomes a way of coping with intense emotions and difficult life events, and treatment is required to address those emotional issues underpinning the problem.
The harsh reality is that individuals need to make the choice to pursue recovery. The act of recovery itself is a lot of hard work – it takes immense strength, persistence and perseverance. Eventually, most individuals with eating disorders reveal their eating problem to someone else. However, without confiding in someone, it is impossible to receive help for any problem, including an eating disorder.
Myth 4 : Being thin will make you happy
Happiness does not automatically follow weight loss. Being happy is within you. Once basic human physical needs are met, happiness and unhappiness are dictated solely by the quality of the relationships you have with yourself and with others.
People come in all shapes and sizes, and being thin is not just a matter of diet and commitment. It is also a matter of genetics. The model-thin “ideal” that many people strive for is unrealistic and difficult, if not impossible, for most people to attain. Just 1 in 10,000 females naturally (without dieting) meet model-thin dimensions.
Myth 5 : Eating disorders are only about food
You might think if you could just sort out your eating you’d be fine. You might think if you could convince your loved one to ‘just eat more’ or ‘just eat less’ then everything would be ok. Eating disorders are more complicated than that. Although they are called eating disorders, it’s not entirely about how much or the lack of food someone is consuming.
An eating disorder is an expression of pain. The food is like a smoke screen and it’s what’s behind this screen, the underlying problems, that need to be addressed. Identifying and healing from that pain is the path to recovery. Of course we all have to have a relationship with food for the rest of our lives so it’s important to work on that too, but food issues are a symptom – emotions are the cause. Some people turn to food for comfort.
Most people with eating disorders are using food to try to regain a sense of self-control since this is something they are actually able to control – this can be through food restriction or over-eating which provides comfort for emotions such as sadness, anger or loneliness. Sometimes focusing on food, weight and calories enables people to block out or numb painful feelings and emotions. But it doesn’t work.
Myth 6 : Eating disorders are caused by unrealistic body images from the media
What we consume consciously and subconsciously can contribute or trigger the development of an eating disorder, but the reality is that not everyone exposed to media images of thin, perfect body images, get an eating disorder. We’ve talked more about how the advertising industry, traditional media and social media contribute here and here, however there are a whole range of reasons somebody can develop an eating disorder or Body Dysmorphia including anything traumatic they have experienced.
Myth 7 : Anorexia and Bulimia are the only “serious” eating disorders
Although these are the most commonly known eating disorders, this doesn’t make them more serious than other types. All eating disorders can have serious medical complications. Eating disorders in general have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Myth 8 : Purging is an effective way to lose weight
Bulimia is an ineffective and dangerous weight control method. Over time, individuals with bulimia tend to gain weight. Your body absorbs calories from the moment you put food in your mouth. Purging through vomiting does not result in ridding the body of ingested food. At least half of what you eat remains in the body even after self induced vomiting. Purging does not cause weight loss – you may have a temporary weight loss but that is due to water loss rather than weight loss. Laxatives get rid of even fewer calories.
Myth 9 : There’s no such thing as too much exercise
We all know exercise is very important, but too much exercise, and not enough calorie absorption in the body, is harmful. Excessive exercise can be very unhealthy, causing problems such as dehydration, fatigue, injuries such as shin splints, cartilage damage and stress fractures, osteoporosis, periods stopping, heart problems and arthritis.
Myth 10 : Achieving normal weight means the eating disorder is cured
Weight recovery is essential to enabling a person with an eating disorder to participate meaningfully in further treatment, such as psychological therapy but recovering to normal weight does not in and of itself signify a cure, because eating disorders are far more complex.
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