Eating disorder awareness week is fast approaching, and we thought it was a good time to take a look at some of the myths surrounding eating disorders and break them down, giving you the facts.
Even in 2020, there’s still a lot of negative stigma surrounding eating disorders, and this is where many of the harmful myths come from, but with a bit of understanding, stereotypes can be broken down, and attitudes towards eating disorders can change.
Eating Disorder Myths
We’ve taken 15 of the most common myths and misconceptions about eating disorders to debunk in order to give you the truth. Some of these misconceptions are widely believed and shared due to a lack of understanding, so by debunking the myths, we hope that new attitudes can begin to form, and that eating disorders will be better understood by everyone.
Myth #1 – Only women struggle with eating disorders
Whilst it’s true that a majority of people that suffer with eating disorders are female, it’s a complete myth that men can’t experience them as well. In fact, according to estimated figured from Beat, it’s thought that around 25% of people that suffer with an eating disorder are male. This equals a quarter of the total estimated figure of 1.25 million UK citizens that are thought to be living with an eating disorder.
Not only are eating disorders not specific to women or females, but they can affect anybody, regardless of age, gender, sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, race, background or religion. Eating disorders aren’t mutually exclusive to any social or biological factor, and they can be just as severe for men as they are for women.
Myth #2 – Only underweight people struggle with eating disorders
This is a really common misconception, probably due to the fact that some people with severe eating disorders end up being underweight and malnourished. However, the idea that eating disorders can only affect those with a low BMI is false.
Many people of all shapes and sizes battle with eating disorders, and it’s important to know that not all eating disorders lead to being unhealthily underweight. Eating disorders are described by the NHS as “an unhealthy attitude towards food”, and not about how much a person weighs. There are many different types of eating disorders, all with different symptoms, but none of them are exclusive to a certain weight type. In fact, if a person does become underweight, it’s possible that they’ve struggled with an eating disorder for quite some time, and likely started their unhealthy relationship with food when they weren’t classed as underweight.
Whilst being underweight can be a symptom of some eating disorders for some people, it certainly doesn’t mean that only those who are underweight can struggle with an eating disorder.
Myth #3 – People with anorexia don’t eat anything at all
This myth is essentially an over-simplification of the eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. The fact of the matter is that humans need food in order to survive, and if those with anorexia nervosa didn’t eat anything at all, sufferers would be seriously physically unwell within just 30-40 days.
Whilst this might be true for some that suffer with anorexia nervosa, most people with this eating disorder do eat, but are incredibly restrictive. For example, most people with anorexia nervosa attempt to eat as little as possible to keep calorie and energy intake low. This usually falls well below the recommended daily amount that a person should eat, but it might not always be obvious. Some people with anorexia are able to eat in front of friends or family, but may then restrict their diet and food intake heavily in order to keep calorie consumption as low as possible.
It's true that sometimes, those with anorexia do have fasting days, but food is needed for survival, and if everybody with anorexia nervosa didn’t eat anything at all, they simply wouldn’t survive.
Myth #4 – An eating disorder can’t be bad if the person looks healthy
Eating disorders don’t just affect the body, but also affect the mind. The severity of an eating disorder depends on how much it affects the person’s life and relationships, not just by how they look on the outside. Many people with eating disorders do look healthy, but it doesn’t mean that their condition isn’t severe or doesn’t need treatment.
Eating disorders don’t have a certain “look”, and it’s impossible to tell who has one, or how severe it is based on looks alone. Eating disorders are often well hidden conditions, and whilst they can majorly impact someone’s overall health, the fact that someone “looks healthy” isn’t a factor when it comes to judging the severity of it.
Myth #5 – An eating disorder is a successful way of losing weight
Weight loss isn’t just about reaching your goal number on the scale – it’s about making sustainable lifestyle changes that can be supported to maintain a healthy weight. If we go by this definition, an eating disorder isn’t a successful way of losing weight, purely because it isn’t healthy or sustainable.
Whilst many people with certain eating disorders do lose weight, it shouldn’t be seen as a successful method. If you’re overweight and wanting to lose weight, there are much safer ways of doing it, and the best way to reach a healthy weight is to identify the issue/s that are causing weight gain and thinking of the most sustainable and healthy way to change them.
In addition to this, many people with eating disorders don’t just stop or change their attitude towards food and weight when they reach a healthy weight. Unfortunately, it can become a long-term condition that’s difficult to control, and sufferers can end up becoming underweight and malnourished, which definitely isn’t successful when it comes to wanting to achieve a healthy weight.
Myth #6 – People that binge eat are always overweight
Again, this myth assumes that people with a certain type of eating disorder must have a certain BMI or look a certain way, when the stigma just isn’t true. Binge eating disorder (BED), can affect anybody, just like any other eating disorder. Yes, some people that are overweight may suffer with BED, but it isn’t a required criteria for the condition.
It should also be pointed out that binge eating doesn’t necessarily lead to weight gain or obesity. Eating disorders can present differently in every person that suffers, so the assumption that binge eaters must be overweight is a damaging stereotype that can lead to stigmatisation, and those that aren’t overweight but suffer with the disorder not getting the help they need.
Bottom line? No eating disorder is mutually exclusive to any body type or weight.
Myth #7 – An eating disorder is a choice
Eating disorders can be classed as a mental illness, and can often occur alongside depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems. Whilst some people think that it can be easy to just “snap out of” an eating disorder, or classify them as a poor choice, the fact is that those that suffer with them rarely make their food choices when in a sound state of mind.
Some eating disorders are born out of compulsions, whilst others are born out of depression or anxiety surrounding weight and body issues, but the important thing to remember with eating disorders is that they are not a choice.
Some people feel as though dietary restriction or purging is a last resort, whilst others might find it therapeutic. However, it doesn’t matter why or how an eating disorder develops when it comes to this myth – the main thing is that people understand that it isn’t a choice, and it’s a condition that needs treatment and support just like anything else.
Myth #8 – Eating disorders are only about food
The idea that eating disorders only affect food choices perhaps comes about because of the “eating” part of the name. However, this isn’t always the case.
Whilst some people do develop unhealthy habits towards food purely because of sensory or taste issues, others develop these attitudes due to low self-esteem or poor body image. Some eating disorders such as purging disorder don’t necessarily involve a modified or restricted diet at all, and just involve burning off as many calories as possible, either through self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxative abuse.
The idea that eating disorders are only about food can lead to some symptoms being missed, such as a sudden obsession with exercise, or drug abuse (especially laxatives).
Eating disorders are complex conditions, so whilst for some people, it might be purely about food, others may see food restriction as a small part of the disorder compared to self-image, purging and mental health issues.
Myth #9 – People of a healthy weight can’t have an eating disorder
Some people think that eating disorders can only be classed as an illness if the person is physically suffering because of the idea that “if it isn’t causing any harm it can’t be bad”.
Once again, eating disorders aren’t about the weight on the scale or your waist size. Eating disorders can happen to people of any weight, and can affect mental health just as much as physical health.
The truth? People of a healthy weight absolutely can suffer with an eating disorder, and myths such as these can be damaging and prevent people from getting the help that they need.
Myth #10 – Eating disorders are for attention seekers
We have absolutely no idea where this one came from. Eating disorders are actually the opposite, a lot of the time. Many people with an eating disorder try to disguise it or hide the fact that they’re suffering, so they don’t draw attention to themselves or their attitudes towards food.
You might notice phrases like “I’m not really hungry, I ate before I came out”
Or “I think I must have a stomach bug, I can’t face much to eat today”.
Some people also wear baggy clothes if they’ve lost weight to hide how their disorder is affecting them, whilst others tend to purge in secret, or hide food to eat in secret later.
Many people that do suffer with an eating disorder try to deflect attention rather than attracting it by using these disguising and hiding techniques.
Myth #11 – An eating disorder is only a phase
This misconception may have come about due to the amount of young teenage girls that suffer with them. However, the idea that an eating disorder is a phase or something to “grow out of” is damaging in itself, as it can mean that sufferers don’t get the help that they need as early as possible.
If an eating disorder is left to progress, the attitudes and beliefs towards food can become much harder to change, and some people that experience eating disorders can suffer for years before recovering.
If you suspect that someone close to you has developed an eating disorder, it can be dangerous to assume that it’ll pass in time. Instead, it might be helpful to look at websites such as Beat to gain an understanding of how you can help someone that might have an eating disorder.
Myth #12- Eating disorders are childish
This myth falls into the same category as numbers 10 & 11 in the fact that it’s just not true. Phrases like this, and assuming that eating disorders are attention seeking or childish can seriously damage the mental health and well being of someone that already suffers with one.
People with eating disorders shouldn’t be viewed as childish or immature, in the same way that people with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues shouldn’t be seen in this way. An eating disorder is a serious condition, and trivialising it as “childish” behaviour can seriously impede someone’s chance of recovery.
As we’ve already acknowledged, many people with eating disorders already suffer with a mental health problem, and hearing myths such as this one can further damage their self-esteem.
People of all ages suffer with eating disorders, in fact, in 2015, around 15% of calls to Beat’s helpline were about people over the age of 40. In other words, eating disorders definitely aren’t “childish” (but the people that subscribe to this misconception might be).
Myth #13 – Eating disorders don’t do physical damage
Whilst eating disorders can be classed as a mental health problem, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t physically damaging as well. In fact, eating disorders can cause all kinds of havoc in the body.
For example, making yourself sick during a purge can damage the teeth due to the acid in the vomit, which can wear away tooth enamel. This is especially a risk if vomiting takes place on a regular basis.
Without enough nutrients from food, the rest of the body can suffer. For example, restricting food for a length of time can make bones weaker, and reduce the density of them, causing issues such as osteoporosis, and those that also restrict liquids can risk becoming dehydrated, which can damage the kidneys and other organs.
Talking about all of the negative physical effects of eating disorders would take up another post entirely, but it’s important to know that even though the cause of the condition might be psychological in origin, eating disorders can absolutely affect the body in physical ways, and can be incredibly damaging to someone’s overall health.
Myth #14 - Eating disorders are just a strict diet
Strict diets do exist, but they aren't classed as eating disorders. Sometimes, a person will be placed on a strict diet for health reasons (such as those due to have bariatric surgery, or those with food intolerances), but an eating disorder goes beyond the limits of a strict diet and involves unhealthy attitudes that can be extremely damaging.
Seeing eating disorders as strict diets can be dangerous, as it can lead to people not taking the condition seriously, or even praising someone with an eating disorder for their "self-discipline" (something which has happened to several overweight people with an eating disorder).
Strict diets should still include all of the nutrition that somebody needs to thrive, whereas eating disorders are likely to cut out entire food groups, keep energy intake as low as possible, and disregard the need for a balanced diet. An eating disorder is an illness, not a strict diet.
Myth #15 – It isn’t an eating disorder if the person reaches a healthy weight
A lot of the myths around eating disorders have seemed to focus on certain weights, but for the final time, if a person has symptoms of an eating disorder and has an unhealthy attitude towards food and eating, it’s an eating disorder, regardless of their start weight, middle weight or their weight when they recover.
Some people view eating disorders as an “extreme diet” that some people do until they’ve reached a healthy weight, but the reality is so much deeper than that. Eating disorders can be all-consuming, especially if the sufferer already has low self-esteem and poor self-image.
Even if a person recovers from their eating disorder once they’re at a healthy weight, it doesn’t take away the battle they’ve had and their attitudes towards food and their own body. Even recovery can be rough for a lot of people with eating disorders, as for many, eating a balanced diet and regular portions can be terrifying after living with an eating disorder.
It’s so important to remember that these conditions are incredibly complex, and they can’t be judged by someone’s weight, size, age, gender, sex, social class, sexual orientation, or any other social or biological factors.
Myths – busted.
How can I help someone with an eating disorder?
If you think that someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, there are certain things you can do to support them. Some fantastic resources to start with are:
Beat Eating Disorders is recommended by the NHS for both those that are struggling themselves, and for those that are worried about a loved one, pupil or co-worker. There’s so much information available from Beat, and there’s even a helpline that you can call for more advice.
ABC (Anorexia & Bulimia Care) is another UK based site that offers help and support for those with eating disorders as well as their friends and family, including an online support group for parents and carers of those with an eating disorder.
Mind is a mental health charity that can offer information on many types of mental health conditions as well as some eating disorders or problems.
We hope that these valuable resources can help you or someone you love to get the right support needed to start recovering from an eating disorder, and to help to end the stigma that still exists around them, share this article to make others aware of the truths behind the debunked myths.