Debunking 5 common misconceptions about eating disorders

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Students in the UD cafeteria. Photo by Annabelle Nicholas.

February is national eating disorders awareness month. Unfortunately, the topic of eating disorders continues to be surrounded with shame and stigma despite their prevalence. We hope to provide some insight into eating disorders by answering some common misconceptions about them.  

1. “Having an eating disorder is a choice.”  

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders are “complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that patients don’t choose.” Just like any other mental disorder, an eating disorder develops gradually over time due to a number of factors. It is certainly not a diagnosis anyone desires to possess; it is a real suffering carried by the individual.                   

In our current culture that glorifies dieting and weight loss, those with restrictive eating disorders are often praised for their “self-control.” However, the reality is that the individual experiences the feeling of being controlled by their disorder. Similarly, those whose eating disorders cause them to binge eat may be criticized for lacking self-control, while the same truth still applies to them.         

2. “Eating disorders are all about appearances.”                

The causes of an eating disorder are complex. Concerns with body image and food are often the manifestations of deeper internal problems. There are many different factors involved — psychological, biological, environmental —  and every experience is highly subjective; thus, a definitive source of an eating disorder can rarely be pinpointed.

Some common threads among eating disorders are that they may arise as a maladaptive coping mechanism, or as a way to exert control over an otherwise chaotic life situation. At the very least, it is safe to say that an eating disorder cannot be reduced to a shallow or vain preoccupation with appearance.       

3. “Eating disorders aren’t that big of a deal.”          

According to NEDA, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate out of any mental disorder, and about 10,200 people in the U.S. die from an eating disorder every year — one life every 52 seconds. These fatalities can occur directly from the physical consequences of an eating disorder, or as a result of the mental consequences that exacerbate pre-existing issues.            

Malnutrition causes the body to break down muscle for fuel, and the body will eventually break down the muscle of the heart, causing cardiac arrest — a fatality that can occur at any weight. Also, frequent purging can deplete electrolytes, which help one’s heart to contract. When these are depleted, the heart may stop beating, according to NEDA.

Brittle nails, thinning skin, weakened bones and hair loss are all common. For women, infertility can become a dangerous reality as the body shuts down the reproductive system in order to conserve energy. 

We include these health consequences not to instill fear, but rather to encourage anyone to reach out for help if you think you may be at risk.     

According to NEDA, studies show that up to 97% of individuals with eating disorders may suffer from co-occurring disorders, most commonly anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The effects of living with an eating disorder exacerbate these already life-altering conditions. The tragic reality is that this amount of suffering leads many individuals to take their own lives.  

4. “Eating disorders only affect women.” 

While many assume that eating disorders almost exclusively affect women, one in three of those diagnosed are men. Some treatment professionals, such as Tabitha Ferrar, think that the rates are actually even among men and women, but the shame and stigma around eating disorders in males dissuades them from seeking help. 

According to NEDA, over 10 million males will suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetimes in the United States alone — and countless more will suffer in silence. Although the struggle may at times present itself differently in men and women, eating disorders are a human issue, not a female issue. Ending this stigma will save men’s lives. 

5. “I’m not underweight and/or I don’t have anorexia, so I can’t have an eating disorder.”

Contrary to popular belief, anorexia is not the only eating disorder. According to NEDA, there are six classifications of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia, Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, Pica and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder. There are also sub-categories within each disorder.

In reality, only a small fraction of those with eating disorders are underweight. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, less than 6% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder are underweight.    

Eating disorders are behavioral disorders, not weight disorders. There is no such thing as not being physically “sick enough” to get help, since the thoughts and behavioral patterns are what are at the root of the problem. If you think you are suffering from an eating disorder, don’t wait to pursue recovery.

We are fortunate to have many resources in the Dallas area. Eating Disorder Recovery Center, Dallas Eating Disorder Solutions and the Center for Discovery all offer free assessments over the phone. Dallas Nutritional Counseling offers a non-diet approach to establishing a healthy relationship with food and your body. You can also call the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-223.

Despite the sobering reality of eating disorders, full recovery is possible, and countless individuals are living proof of this. With a proper treatment team — including, but not limited to: a therapist, nutritionist, doctor and a spiritual director — along with a supportive community, recovery can be achieved by anyone.

Seeking help in whatever form it is available is critical for lasting success. You do not have to suffer alone, nor do you have to suffer forever. Life is so much better when you are fully alive — a freedom that is yours to pursue.

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