This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a time to raise awareness of the most life threatening psychological illness. When I look back at what I knew about eating disorders as a new practicing dietitian (err, thought I knew), and what I know now after years of experience, it's not surprising to me that there's a ton of misinformation out there. Even as someone who studied eating disorders in both of her undergraduate degrees (psychology and nutrition), there was a TON I didn't know or understand.
This week, I want to bust 4 of the most common eating disorder myths that get in the way of people who are suffering getting the care they need.
1. Someone who is suffering from an eating disorder looks thin.
When I say eating disorder, most people's mind goes to an image of a very thin, emaciated person, who clearly looks malnourished - the shock images that we're often exposed to in eating disorder PSAs. While yes, this can be someone with an eating disorder, it's not all people with eating disorders, or even most people with eating disorders. Most people who have an eating disorder are in the "normal" or "overweight" BMI categories (to use a flawed system of categorizing bodies). Binge eating disorder (which can affect people who are thin too) is the most common eating disorder. And restrictive eating disorders, like anorexia, can occur at any size.
This myth is a HUGE barrier for those who need treatment for eating disorders. For those who are thin, if they don't look emaciated, there's this idea that they aren't sick enough. And for those whose weight falls in a higher range, their eating disorder is often completely missed. Or worse, it's celebrated as "successful weight loss."
2. Eating disorders are rare.
More than 30 million people will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. And that's just diagnosable eating disorders, those who meet the DSM diagnostic criteria. Disordered eating occurs on a spectrum, and there's a huge number of people who experience disordered eating at some level. I'd argue most people fall into this category of disordered eating - research has shown 75% of women engage in at least some disordered eating behaviors. While those who have a diagnosed eating disorder are at the greatest health risk and absolutely need treatment, struggling with disordered eating and body image concerns is painful and deserves treatment and support too.
Unfortunately, for many, many reasons (lack of insurance coverage, missed diagnoses, stigma, etc), only 1 out of 10 people with a diagnosable eating disorder get treatment. And many who do are unable to get the level of care that they need.
3. Eating disorders only affect women.
While the majority of those who are suffering from eating disorders are female, eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of sex or gender. A study done by the CDC shows that up to 1/3rd of those with eating disorders are male. Because of this idea that eating disorders are a "girl thing," early signs are missed and many men's eating disorders are only diagnosed when severe. While there are higher rates of eating disorders among gay men and transgender people, the vast majority of of those with eating disorders are cis heterosexual men.
4. Eating disorders are a choice.
Eating disorders are not a disease of vanity. Someone does not choose to have an eating disorder in order to be thin. The development of an eating disorder is complex and caused by both environmental and genetic factors. Certainly, the thin ideal and weight stigma are major environmental factors, and significantly increases the risk of an ED for those who are genetically predisposed. But eating disorders are not something someone chooses, and you can't "snap out of it."
Most people suffering from an eating disorder are also battling anxiety, depression, and/or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I've heard researchers even refer to eating disorders as a type of anxiety disorder. Whether it's malnutrition that triggered the mood disorder or visa-versa, anxiety and cognitive distortions make it impossible to "just eat more."
Diagnosed eating disorder or not, if you are suffering, you deserve help. I've got room for a few new long term clients so please reach out if you'd like to chat and see if we'd be a good fit to work together. I work with clients with eating disorders locally in Columbia, and virtually I'm available for those who are further along in recovery or medically stable disordered eating.
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