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Common Myths About Eating Disorders Debunked

Updated on July 5, 2011

The amount of misinformation about eating disorders floating around is staggering. I can't help being surprised every time someone asserts an eating disorder myth as truth. But then, food and body as subjects are taboo in most people's lives, and eating disorders possess the largest stigma of all.

So I'm doing my part. I've listed the most common myths I've come up against, and laid out the facts in response. Considering that eating disorders are more common than Alzheimer's in the United States, I think you'd do well to take note. Chances are, you know, have known, or will know your share of eating disordered individuals over the course of your lifetime.

Myth: Eating Disorders Only Affect Teenagers

In fact, eating disorders can, and do, affect members of every population. While 86% of diagnosed individuals experienced the onset of the illness prior to age 20 (according to a 10-year study by ANAD), there is a growing population of middle-aged and post-menopausal women with eating disorders. Like the buying of a sports-car for a middle-aged man, an eating disorder can be the manifestation of a sort of mid-life crisis for women.

Myth: Eating Disorders Only Affect Women

Current statistics show that 1 out of every 10 people suffering from an eating disorder is male, but researchers are discovering that gender bias in diagnosis could be resulting in artificially low numbers. Eating disorders manifest differently in males and females, and until more studies are conducted on eating disorders in men, we can't know just how many there are out there.

Recent research also shows that the population with the highest percentage of eating disordered members is that of the homosexual male. This does not, by any means, indicate that straight men do not practice disordered eating. Simply that the accepted methods for diagnosis translate more readily from females (both hetero- and homo-sexual) to gay men.

Myth: Eating Disorders Are A Phase

As many as one out of every four anorexics dies of her disease. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, ranking far above the the numbers of suicides, which are regularly quoted in middle- and high school health classes. However, with treatment, the casualties fall to only about 4%, proving that the therapeutic model does, in fact, work, though health insurance often refuses to cover it, insisting that once medically stable, an eating disordered person is "cured." Increasingly, doctors and lawmakers alike are calling for insurance to offer full coverage of these serious illnesses.

Myth: Anorexics Don't Eat, Bulimics Puke

Diagnosis is not so cut-and-dry. Anorexia is not characterized by fasting, but by severe restriction. Bulimia consists of cycles of binge-and-purge behavior, but purging does not always mean self-induced vomiting. In addition, anorexics do sometimes binge, and sometimes purge, and some bulimics have periods of restriction or fasting. There is a third diagnosis called "Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified," or EDNOS, which serves as a catch-all for those meet some of the characteristics of each, but who do not fit entirely into one category or another. (More info here)

Myth: Eating Disorders Are About Food

An eating disorder is a complex mental illness with biological, psychological, and sociological components. Merely "eating right" does nothing to solve the issues at the core of an eating disordered person's problem. It is for this reason that effective eating disorder treatment takes a multi-disciplinary approach to the individual, working to identify the root causes of that particular person's struggles.

Myth: People With Eating Disorders Are Emaciated

70% of women with eating disorders are at or above a "healthy" weight. You cannot tell by looking at someone whether or not he or she has an eating disorder; many thin girls have a healthy attitude to food, and many average-bodied women practice disordered eating.

The same is true for binge eating disorder. Being overweight does not necessarily indicate overeating, and not all who struggle with compulsive overeating are obese. It is important to break down these associations so that someone who is ill does not avoid seeking treatment simply because he or she does not meet the stereotypical visual image of an emaciated anorexic. For this reason the behavioral and emotional symptoms are a much more reliable indicator of disordered eating.

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    • Mark Tulin profile image

      Mark Tulin 3 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Enjoyed reading about eating disorder myths. Your hub is both informative and concise. Very true, it's not about the food. Thanks

    • SpiffyD profile image

      SpiffyD 6 years ago from The Caribbean

      I like hubs that address and debunk common myths. This one did that effectively. Some persons may pass through a phase with regard to eating disorders, but it is more often a psychological/emotional problem. Good point that was.

    • profile image

      Kinnery 7 years ago

      The other day I was talking to a psychiatrist about my ED, and he told me that I wasn't thin enough to have anorexia. I tried mentioning ED-NOS and he told me that I was fine and that I should go home.

      You can imagine how bad my symptoms have been since then. That is one of the biggest barriers for people to get help.

      And the gender barrier is also huge. So many males are afraid to talk about their EDs.

    • gr82bme profile image

      gr82bme 7 years ago from USA

      Well done! Not over done. I did not get bored reading this hub. Great job on the research. I think the media and society also have alot to do with this. It starts out, young girls or guys, see their idols and how they look. If they are a little overweight or have acne,maybe the mean girls at school pick on you whatever it may be , their selfesteem gets shot down. My heart goes out to them. They truely need help,love and understanding.

    • fucsia profile image

      fucsia 7 years ago

      very interesting hub!

    • Sound of Me profile image

      Sound of Me 7 years ago from United States

      I have an eating disorder and did my senior project on eating disorders and recovery. These myths were also something I came across. I really want to stress the importance of your last two: they aren't about the food, and you don't have to be emaciated to have one. Great hub!

    • profile image

      infinitenesmith 7 years ago

      THANK YOU for writing such an informative hub. As someone recovering from EDNOS/bulimorexia, I often come up against these myths and attitudes, especially the mistaken mindset that eating disorders are about food. So many people say things like, "You need to eat more/exercise less/gain weight!" without understanding the underlying problems. Hopefully, through information like what you've provided here, more people can become educated about the reality of these diseases.

    • shining star525 profile image

      shining star525 8 years ago from Seattle, WA

      You are so correct, and I consider myself an expert. It is SO important to address the underlying issues, and believe me, it is possible overcome any addiction.

    • profile image

      gecosala 9 years ago

      there are girls doing this inorder them not to look fat.and it feels that they look like fat,even not.

    • compu-smart profile image

      Compu-Smart 10 years ago from London UK

      Great hub and very usefull info which i'm sure will help a lot of people..

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 10 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Very good Hub!

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 10 years ago from Northern California

      A really interesting hub! As a former anorexic this information was very intriguing to me, even though I knew some of the facts already. Thanks for being willing to tackle these kinds of issues!