Although about half of Americans know someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, widespread misconceptions about them still exist. Eating disorder myths can make it hard to seek care and less likely that family members will recognize the signs of the disease in their loved ones.
Due to the shame and secrecy associated with eating disorders, those struggling with them often make attempts to hide or disguise their symptoms. That is why it’s so important to know the facts—so that if your loved one is struggling, you can help as soon as possible.
Eating disorder specialist Mary Tantillo debunks some of the most common eating disorder myths.
MYTH: Eating disorders only affect wealthy teenage girls.
FACT: The condition can affect anyone, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. The number of middle-aged women with eating disorders is rising, and at least one in 10 people struggling with an eating disorder is male. Because eating disorders are often seen as a “women’s illness,” men may be less likely to admit to having an eating disorder or to seek treatment.
MYTH: People with a normal body weight cannot have an eating disorder.
FACT: The condition comes in all shapes and sizes, and you don’t need to be extremely thin to be struggling with an eating disorder. Many who have the disorder are at a normal weight, and some are overweight.
MYTH: Eating disorders are only about food and the number on the scale.
FACT: People who have eating disorders often are struggling with an underlying problem, and are using unhealthy behaviors to cope with—or cover up—anxiety, depression, low self-esteem or other issues. Eating disorders isolate a person and impair their social functioning. Although regaining a healthy approach to food and eating is an important first step in recovery, further therapy is almost always necessary.
MYTH: Eating disorders aren’t serious. They are a lifestyle choice, or just an extreme diet.
FACT: Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and potentially life-threatening. They are associated with serious medical and psychological complications, and the mortality rate for people with eating disorders is the highest of all psychiatric illnesses. Only moderate, sustainable changes in intake and exercise are safe, and extreme dieting can lead to significant mental and physical consequences.
If your loved one exhibits the signs of an eating disorder by withdrawing from family or friends, changing their eating habits, or expressing negative or obsessive thoughts about body size or shape, consider whether it’s an eating disorder and talk to him or her in a quiet place.
Express your observations and concerns using “I” statements, such as, “I noticed you have not been eating much at dinner, and I’m worried.” The person may deny that there is a problem, so it’s important to keep the door open for future conversations. Remind them you are sharing your concerns because you love them.
Gently but firmly encourage them to seek professional help and offer to attend the evaluation appointment with them. If it’s your child, talk to your pediatrician or an eating disorder specialist. Early intervention is key for reducing the chance of chronic illness.
Mary Tantillo, Ph.D., PMHCNS-BC, FAED, is director of the Western New York Comprehensive Care Center for Eating Disorders, professor of clinical nursing at the University of Rochester School of Nursing, and founder and permanent board member of The Healing Connection, Inc.