Eating disorders are frequently misunderstood and underestimated in contemporary society. If you were in grade school in the early 2000s like I was, you probably grew up watching Lifetime movies and reading YA paperbacks that formed your opinion about what eating disorders were. Particularly in that time period, when reported eating disorders were on the rise, there grew a need for society at large to address the issue. While this certainly grew awareness and undoubtedly helped many people seek the treatment they needed, it also gave rise to rampant myths surrounding what eating disorders are and are not. Here are some of those myths, and the facts that dispel them.
Myth: Eating disorders are just a “cry for attention” or a “phase”
According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC), about 51.3% of 12-17 year old strongly agreed that a person with an eating disorder will “snap out of it” eventually. Unfortunately, this is not always limited to the general public. People with eating disorders can also hear this from some health professionals.
Truth: People with eating disorders are not seeking attention. Often, people with eating disorders will go to great lengths to hide their disorder from friends and family. Sometimes, they may not even recognize themselves that anything is wrong. The NEDC has found that it takes an average of 4 years from the start of the disorder for an individual to seek medical attention.
Myth: Eating disorders are not a serious issue
The myth that eating disorders come from body image issues caused by what people see in the media, and that they are based purely on vanity and superficiality, is one of the biggest myths surrounding the illnesses.
Truth: Eating disorders are not caused solely by people wanting to “slim down” and fit what they see in the media, they are serious illnesses that have psychological and sometimes genetic underpinnings. Cultural messages about weight can certainly affect one’s body image and worsen eating disorders, but they are not the root cause.
Myth: Eating disorders only affect white, upper-middle class teenagers
Perhaps due to the aforementioned Lifetime movies and YA paperbacks, people with eating disorders are often portrayed as white adolescents who are middle to upper-middle class.
Truth: Eating disorders affect people of all socioeconomics statuses and all races and ethnicities. Also, while the peak period for eating disorders is between 12 and 17, they can affect any age. In fact, specialists are reporting an increase in the diagnosis of children, some as young as five or six. Additionally, if you develop an eating disorder in your younger years and do not seek treatment, it is likely to stay with your well past your teens. It is reductive and dangerous to assume that the illnesses are limited to only one group of people.
Myth: Eating disorders only affect women
Eating disorders are more common in women and male eating disorders are rarely discussed, so many people assume that it is an exclusively-female issue.
Truth: A 2007 study from the Center for Disease Control found that up to one third of eating disorder diagnoses come from males, and the medical community at large is finding an increased instance in males seeking help for eating disorders. While it is unclear whether eating disorders are actually on the rise in males, or if it is just the result of males feeling more comfortable seeking help, it is clear that it is not an illness exclusive to women.
Myth: Anorexia is the only serious eating disorder
Since anorexia is perhaps the eating disorder we hear about most often, there is a common misconception that it is the only serious eating disorder.
Truth: Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Bulimia and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) have mortality rates that are similar if not higher than anorexia – 3.9% and 5.2% respectively, while anorexia has a 4.0% rate. These numbers come from those seeking treatment. Without treatment, it is suspected that about 1 in 20 of people with eating disorders will die as a result of their illness. All eating disorders should be treated as a serious issue.
If you are someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Hotline at (800) 931-2237 or go to their website and choose their “Click-to-Chat” option to speak with a live, trained Helpline volunteer.