Eating Disorder Facts & Myths
About 50% of all people in the U.S. either know someone with an eating disorder or have been personally affected by one. Despite that, major misconceptions about eating disorders are widespread. These myths can lead to stigma, making it difficult for some individuals to seek treatment and often making it less likely that medical professionals will identify or diagnose eating disorders when they occur outside of the stereotypes.
Below are some of the most common myths about eating disorders and the facts to counter them. It’s important that we continue to provide education and increase awareness about eating disorders to help dispel these myths.
Myth: You can tell if someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them
Fact: Individuals with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Many times, the media and other public discussions about eating disorders focus solely on individuals with a diagnosis of anorexia who are severely emaciated. In reality, many individuals with anorexia may not ever appear so drastically underweight. Furthermore, many individuals with severe disorders including bulimia, binge eating, and OSFED can be underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese and often fluctuate in weight. Even athletes who appear to be incredibly fit might be struggling with an eating disorder. The bottom line is that you cannot define someone’s health by how much they weigh and you cannot determine whether they have an eating disorder just by looking at them.
Myth: Eating Disorders are caused by Photoshopped images in the media
Fact: Many people are exposed to the media and altered images on a daily basis but only a small percentage of them actually develop eating disorders. Eating Disorders are serious illnesses that have biological, genetic and psychological underpinnings. Sociocultural messages about weight and beauty (including photoshopped images) can certainly impact a person’s body image and stimulate pressures to look a certain way, but they cannot cause an eating disorder.
Myth: Men don’t get eating disorders
Fact: At least 1 out of every 10 people with an eating disorder is male. In fact, within certain diagnostic categories like Binge Eating Disorder, men represent as many as 40% of those affected. In a recently released report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, boys and men were cited as one of the groups seeing the fastest rise in eating disorders over the past 10 years along with 8-12 year olds and ethnic minorities. It’s equally important to screen for eating disorders among females and males.
Myth: Only people of high socioeconomic status get eating disorders
Fact: People in all socioeconomic levels have eating disorders. The disorders have been identified across all socioeconomic groups, age groups, both sexes, and in many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America. (source: NEDA)
Myth: Eating Disorders are a lifestyle choice; someone can choose to stop having an eating disorder.
Fact: Eating disorders are serious illnesses with mental and physical consequences that often involve a great deal of suffering. Someone can make the choice to pursue recovery, but the act of recovery itself is a lot of hard work and involves more than simply deciding to not act on symptoms. In most cases, the eating disorder has become a person’s primary way of coping with intense emotions and difficult life events. In order to heal from the eating disorder, a person needs appropriate treatment and support regarding medical monitoring, nutritional rehabilitation as well as learning and practicing healthier ways to manage stress.
Myth: Purging is an effective way to lose weight
Fact: Purging does not result in ridding the body of ingested food. At least half of what is consumed during a binge typically remains in the body even after self-induced vomiting. It’s important to know that laxatives do not prevent the body from absorbing calories either because they impact the large intestine and most calories are absorbed in the small intestine. Laxatives may provide an illusion of weight loss because they stimulate a temporary loss of fluids from the body which can lead to dehydration. Purging does not cause weight loss, nor does it prevent weight gain. In fact, over time, the binge/purge cycle can actually contribute to increased or accelerated weight gain as it affects the body’s metabolic rate. For these reasons, many people with bulimia are average or above-average weight.
Myth: Eating Disorders are a result of over controlling parents and dysfunctional families
Fact: In the past, parents were often blamed for an individual’s eating disorder but new research and conventional wisdom have helped to dispel this myth. Families affected by eating disorders are very diverse. We now know that between 50-80% of a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder is due to genetic factors. We also know that parents and families can play an integral role in helping a loved one recover. For this reason family therapy is a primary therapeutic modality used for adolescents and is also strongly encouraged for adults.
Myth: Anorexia is the only life threatening eating disorder
Fact: Eating Disorders in general have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Recent research has expanded our knowledge about the risks associated with each of the specific diagnoses.
The research (Crow, S., et al. 2009) showed mortality rates for bulimia and EDNOS that were similar to, and higher, than those for anorexia. Bulimia had a 3.9% mortality rate and EDNOS had a 5.2% mortality rate while anorexia had a 4.0% rate. These numbers were based on a study of individuals seeking outpatient services. Without treatment, it’s suspected that as many as 20% individuals will die as a result of their illness. Even for patients whose eating disorders don't prove fatal, there are often severe medical complications associated with starvation and purging, including bone disease, cardiac complications, gastrointestinal distress, and infertility.
Myth: Recovery from eating disorders is rare
Fact: Recovery, though challenging, is absolutely possible. Recovery can take months or years, but with treatment, many people do eventually recover and go on to live a life free from their eating disorder. Read more about this topic on our outcomes page.