5 Common Eating Disorder Myths: De-bunking and De-mystifying!
By: Dana Kippen, Clinical Intern
When you think of, or hear someone mention an eating disorder, what comes to mind? Does your mind jump to specific types of eating disorders, like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder? Do you think about people you know personally who have struggled with an eating disorder? Or maybe someone in the media who has talked about them? Maybe specific words come to mind, like weight, body image, starvation, or purging. Whatever comes to mind for you is probably influenced by a number of different factors, including personal experiences, societal norms and values, the media’s depictions of specific disorders, etc.
With all of these influences creating an abundance of information about eating disorders from so many different sources, we decided it may be important to set the record straight, and challenge a few of the common misperceptions and myths surrounding eating disorders. Here at Recovered and Restored, we know that knowledge is power, and we are dedicated to making sure that you can be as knowledgeable as possible about the reality of eating disorders! Let’s jump right into the de-bunking!
Myth #1: You can tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them.
This one is definitely impacted by societal norms and values, as well as the media, unfortunately. In most of the world today, the thin-ideal has become extremely pervasive, taking shape in so many different ways (ex: from glorifying the “heroin-chic” look, all the way to celebrating those who are in larger bodies that embark on extreme weight loss journeys). This obsession with being as small and thin as possible has also warped the way the media portrays eating disorders. Have you noticed that articles and segments discussing eating disorders always seem to include photos of individuals who appear visibly frail? While to most media consumers this may seem like a decision made because everyone with an eating disorder becomes severely underweight, right? Wrong. These images are used to elicit visceral reactions from viewers, NOT to show the fuller, more real picture of those who struggle with these disorders.
In reality, you CAN’T tell that someone has an eating disorder by simply looking at them. Eating disorders do not have a size. This is because health looks different for everyone, and body size is not an indication of an eating disorders. Did you know that less than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as “underweight”? That means the vast majority of people who receive an eating disorder diagnosis are not considered “underweight” (and this is based on BMI, which is a whole other issue, don’t get me started…) and would not appear like the images shared in the media portraying eating disorders. People of all shapes and sizes can be struggling with an eating disorder, and this a reality we need to start opening our eyes to! This is because, due to societal perceptions and media portrayals of these disorders, there are tons of people who may be struggling with an eating disorder, who feel as though they don’t fit the “picture” of what an eating disorder could look like, so they don’t seek help. That is why it is crucial to begin de-mystifying, as spreading the truth can be lifesaving!
Myth #2: Eating disorders are just about food.
The term “eating disorders” seems self-explanatory, right? Eating disorders encompass all mental health issues related to feeding and eating, generally, which is why this misconception is hard to get rid of! While, yes, many of the main signs, symptoms, and eating disorder behaviors revolve around our relationship to food, eating disorders are incredibly complex diagnoses, and the range of things impacted by an eating disorder is much wider than simply food.
A good example to illustrate this idea is that often when individuals are struggling with an eating disorder, a lot of the behaviors they engage in to feel safer or to cope have to do with trying to gain a sense of control over their lives. This can manifest in obsessions and perfectionism, which can impact and lead to rigidity in many different areas of life! Also, the safety behaviors that individuals engage in with an eating disorder food is only a part of the disorder, which can stem from many complex factors including genetic and biological predispositions, societal norms/values, environmental triggers, and traumatic experiences. Eating disorders do often impact the way we interact with and perceive food, and they are also about much more than that!!
Myth #3: Only middle-class white women in the US develop eating disorders.
This myth is also definitely borne out of media portrayal of eating disorders and can be extremely dangerous for those who don’t fit this image of privilege! Let’s try to dismantle this myth one piece at a time:
First and foremost, the reality of eating disorders is that they affect at least 9% of the population WORLDWIDE, and this does not account for those who struggle with an eating disorder but do not receive treatment or a diagnosis. Eating disorders are NOT unique to the US – these mental health disorders don’t have borders, unfortunately. Also, it is really important to note that this is not a “rich person disorder” or a “first-world problem.” Eating disorders can impact people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and facing issues such as food insecurity actually increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. As a collective, let’s stop trying to invalidate or dismiss the severity and pervasiveness of eating disorders by labeling them as something only privileged individuals could experience. It has real, serious repercussions.
In relation to the piece of the myth that states only white people develop eating disorders, the reality is, again, much different! For example, black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior, such as binge-eating and purging. Individuals in the Latin/x community are significantly more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than their peers, and Asian American college students report higher rates of restriction compared with their white peers. However, despite certain eating disorders impacting BIPOC communities at higher rates than white communities, this misperception, as well as structural barriers have made it so that BIPOC individuals are significantly less likely than their white peers to have been asked by their doctor about eating disorder symptoms and are half as likely to be diagnosed or to receive treatment. Again, we see the harmful impact of these myths and biases - statistics don’t lie, and everybody deserves to be able to access treatment and support!!!
Finally, the ongoing stigmatization of mental health issues for men is important and relates to the reasons we more highly associate eating disorders with being a “women’s issue.” While it is true that societal standards of beauty for women, as well as hyper-sexualization and objectification of women, play a huge role in the development of eating disorders, this does not mean that only cis-gendered women can struggle! In fact, we know that eating disorders will impact 10 million men at some point in their lives, and 25% of those diagnosed with an ED identify as male. Gay men are seven times more likely to report binge-eating and twelve times more likely to report purging than heterosexual men. Gay and bisexual boys are also significantly more likely to fast, vomit, or take laxatives or diet pills to control their weight. Additionally, the trans and gender-nonconforming communities experience higher rates of disordered eating, at 4 times the rate of their cisgender classmates. Thus, while gender can play a role in the development of eating disorders, these disorders impact people of all genders and sexual orientations, too!!
Myth #4: Anorexia and Bulimia are the only severe eating disorders.
For many people answering the question at the beginning of this blog post, the terms anorexia and bulimia probably came to mind. This myth is accurate in that anorexia and bulimia are considered to be severe eating disorders, but there are also many other - just-as-severe - eating disorders that have to be a part of this conversation!! These disorders include Binge Eating disorder (BED), ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder,) Rumination disorder, Pica, Orthorexia, and OSFED (Other Specific Feeding or Eating Disorder).
For example, BED is the most common eating disorder in the US today, and OSFED is one of the most common diagnoses given for eating disorders. While they aren’t talked about as much, all of these disorders can be extremely dangerous if left untreated. Restriction and avoidance of food, purging, binge-cycles, regurgitation, eating things that are not considered food, over-exercising, and cutting out food groups are all warning signs of different eating disorders, and can all lead to extreme health complications!! Expanding the conversation beyond anorexia and bulimia is essential!
Myth #5: Recovery from an eating disorder is impossible.
Lastly, but certainly not least of the eating disorder myths worth throwing out is the idea that full recovery from an eating disorder is unachievable, and that once you have an eating disorder, you are destined to struggle across the lifetime. Recovery looks different for everyone and whatever your recovery looks like it is a wonderful thing. Some of this stems from the comparison of eating disorders to substance use disorders/addiction, and the idea that “once an addict, always an addict.” First, eating disorders are not addictions, and food is not addictive. Please re-read that food is not addictive. Just wanted to get that out of the way. Also, this statement in relation to substance use disorders is highly problematic and should NOT be applied to our understanding of eating disorder recovery, either! Your eating disorder may be a part of you just like substance use could be a part of you but it is not who you are!! You are so much more than your disorder.
We know, partially from personal experience, that full recovery IS possible, and is so worth working towards!! However, please note any form of recovery harm reduction, quasi-recovery, or any step toward recovery is amazing. Over the course of treatment and the recovery process, it is possible to heal your relationship to your body and to food, and we know that you are NEVER “too sick” to recover. Some of this comes with unpacking the root of your eating disorder, learning to manage and cope with emotions in an adaptive way, seeking meaning and identity outside of our body image, and learning to identify the disordered thoughts without having to engage in disordered behaviors. We won’t promise that recovery is quick, easy, or always fun, but we will promise that recovery is beautiful, and is possible. We believe in you and believe in your recovery!!
Resources on eating disorders
For more information connected to eating disorders, treatment options, and pro-recovery, anti-diet eating disorder organizations/practices, here are a few of our favorite resources:
National Eating Disorder Association: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
Health at Every Size Approach: https://asdah.org/health-at-every-size-haes-approach/
National Alliance on Mental Illness: nami.org
Project Heal: https://www.theprojectheal.org/
National Eating Disorder Collaboration – other myths: https://nedc.com.au/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-explained/myth/
Jennifer Rollin (author/researcher): jenniferrollin.com
Colleen Reichmann Therapy Practice: colleenreichmann.com
Other Mental Health Services Offered in PA, NJ, DE, SC, and FL
We offer a wide variety of services related to eating disorder recovery including trauma therapy! We offer Weekly Support Groups, Nutrition Services, and Family and Parent Therapy as well as Coaching, all tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual. We offer our services for Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating, and Orthorexia online in New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, and Florida! We are here to offer our support and understanding in a safe and non-judgmental environment.
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Recovered and Restored is an eating disorder therapy center founded by Gabrielle Morreale. We specialize in helping teens and young women heal from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and binge eating disorder and treat disordered eating, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. We provide eating disorder therapy in the towns of Horsham, Upper Gwynedd, Lower Gwynedd, North Wales, Lansdale, Hatfield, Blue Bell, Doylestown, and nearby towns with eating disorder therapy. Also providing virtual eating disorder therapy in New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida. Some towns served virtually but are not limited to Pittsburg, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Center City, Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Mount Laurel, Cape May, Avalon, Brick, Dover, New Castle, Bethany Beach, Marydel, and Oceanview