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Golisano Children's Hospital / Adolescent Medicine / Eating Disorders / Myths About Eating Disorders

Myths About Eating Disorders

Unhappy looking teen maleMyth: Parents are the cause of eating disorders in their daughters or sons.

Fact: Parents are NOT the cause of eating disorder, but they are crucial to recovery.  There is no single cause for the development of an eating disorder, but a variety of predisposing, precipitating and perpetuating factors come together in at-risk individuals in a complex and dynamic interplay.  Eating disorders are an effective way to cope with difficult life circumstances and developmental challenges.

Myth: Eating disorders are a matter of choice, or lifestyle.

Fact: No one chooses to have an eating disorder, but what often starts as a reasonable plan to “get healthy” through diet and exercise can transform into an unhealthy and potentially life-threatening illness.  What begins as a means of gaining a sense of control in one’s life can quickly escalate into out-of-control behavior.  Although no one chooses to get an eating disorder, recovery requires choosing to give up the eating disorder habits and replacing these coping mechanisms with healthy eating and exercise habits.

Myth: Only white girls from the suburbs get eating disorders.

Fact: Although eating disorders tend to affect white adolescent and young adult females, these conditions cross all boundaries—gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, geographic and socioeconomic—no group is immune.  In fact, males or individuals from minority groups may not be identified as having an eating disorder by health care providers because of the this misconception.

Myth: People with eating disorders are trying to punish their parents or other loved ones. 

Fact: Just as no one chooses to get an eating disorder, rarely are the behaviors spiteful or intentionally hurtful to others.  Parents often feel hurt, embarrassed, guilty and blame themselves for their child developing an eating disorder, but these sentiments are never productive with respect to recovery. 

Myth: Eating disorders are a matter of vanity or a way to get attention.

Fact: In her book The Art of Starvation, Sheila MacLeod notes that “dieting is a matter of vanity, but anorexia nervosa is a matter of pride”, with most patients hiding their bodies under bulky or baggy clothes because they feel fat.  In the early phase of weight loss due to an eating disorder, there may be positive attention with comments from others about looking “better”, but as the illness progress, the attention becomes more negative and unwanted.

Myth: Eating disorders are just an adolescent “phase”, so they should be ignored and they will go away on their own.

Fact: Eating disorders generally begin during teenage years as a means to cope with normal developmental tasks like identity formation and/or establishing independence.  Effective, targeted treatment is more likely to result in recovery than ignoring the unhealthy habit and waiting for spontaneous resolution. 

Myth: People with eating disorders are cured after inpatient treatment.

Fact: Individuals who require hospitalization receive relatively short-term intensive treatment focused on several areas including medical problems, nutrition, weight restoration, psychological and social counseling.  Because most inpatient programs are time-limited, hospitalization represents an intensification of treatment that is followed by less intensive treatment in a residential treatment facility, partial hospital program, or outpatient clinic.  Thus, hospitalization is often the beginning of a long-term treatment plan and should not be expected to result immediately in the absence of an eating disorder following discharge.

Myth: To avoid conflict, parents should let their child with an eating disorder eat as much or as little that she/he wants, wherever, whenever and whatever the cost.

Fact: Parents often feel “terrorized” by their child’s eating disorder and are afraid that setting limits, ensuring proper intake of food and beverage, or disciplining in any way might cause the eating disorder to get even more out-of-control.   As a result they lose confidence in their competence to be effective parents.  This situation is not helpful for the child with the eating disorder, any siblings, others living in the house, or for the relationship between the parents. Eating disorders are often called “diseases of disconnection” because they disrupt the relationships of the affected individual with themselves, their parents, other family members, friends and loved ones. 

Myth: Getting better is just a question of eating.

Fact: Eating disorders are not only about food, however, unless a patient develops healthy eating habits and to a minimal healthy weight, recovery is impossible.  Therefore, a focus on eating and achieving a healthy weight is essential to the initial phase of treatment.  Psychologically based therapy is of little value when a patient’s brain and mind are malnourished.  As one recovered patient noted, “eating normally combined with maintaining a healthy weight is not the solution to your problems, but you cannot solve your problems without this occurring first.”   Healthy eating and weight are a necessary, but not sufficient, element for recovery.

Myth: People at a normal body weight cannot have an eating disorder. 

Fact: At their core, eating disorders are about undue influence of body weight or shape on self-worth, distortion of body image, and pervasive thoughts about ways to become thinner or to avoid gaining weight.  A person at normal body weight may have all three of these features.  In fact, normal weight individuals who have these features often suffer more than those with an abnormal body weight, because their symptoms are not validated by their appearance.