5 common eating disorder myths debunked

30 November 2023
Akanksha Mishra Written by Akanksha Mishra
Akanksha Mishra

Akanksha Mishra

Akanksha Mishra is a writer and blogger who loves to write about everything from science to pets.

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Nilom Shah Reviewed by Nilom Shah
Nilom Shah

Nilom Shah

Nilom Shah, Counseling Psychologist Nilom B Shah is a Mental Health...

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“You’re way too touchy about food!”

“Why can’t you enjoy eating out like the rest of us?”

“I found a new diet online. You should totally give it a try!”

As someone living with an eating disorder (ED), how often have you heard such things from your friends, relatives, or even family members?

While eating disorder is not the first mental illness to be largely misunderstood by the masses, the way people trivialize it as “a mere excuse to eat/not eat food” is disturbing.

Over the years, the misunderstandings that surround eating disorders have given rise to several myths that have no foundation but are more popular than the truth. The sadder consequence of these myths is that they prevent people living with EDs from getting the help they need.

In an attempt to break down these unfounded myths and bring the truth of eating disorders to light, we’re here to debunk the five of the most commonly heard ones today.

Myth #1: Eating disorders are no big deal

Here’s a common question that people with limited knowledge of EDs often ask:

What’s the worst that can happen to someone with an eating disorder?

You’d be surprised to find out that EDs are proven to have the highest fatality rate (page 26 in the document) among all mental illnesses. This 2020 report highlights that EDs cause about 10,200 deaths in the United States every year.

But how can an eating disorder kill someone?

First and foremost, the guilt and/or shame people with EDs feel at not being able to maintain social relationships increases the risk of suicidal behavior in them.

And that’s not all.

Living with an ED can also make one vulnerable to serious health problems like malnutrition, dehydration, and cardiovascular complications. Both bulimia and anorexia nervosa are known to elevate the risk of arrhythmia and can potentially lead to congestive heart failure.

When you learn the painful truth of the fatality that people living with EDs are vulnerable to, you begin to understand why finding them the right help is crucial.

Myth #2: Only teenagers are at risk of developing eating disorders

We wouldn’t call this myth entirely unfounded. Some studies do indicate the average age of onset for EDs to be 18 years.

However, this 2006 report from Pediatrics shows that between 1999 and 2006, the cases of children younger than 12 rose dramatically by 119%. Of these new cases, a majority fell between the age group of 5-6 years. This is proof that people can develop eating disorders much earlier than their teenage years.

In fact, they can also affect older people. The professionals at the Renfrew Center, an Eating Disorder Treatment facility in Nashville, have highlighted it.

They found that in many of their older patients, the symptoms of EDs – such as vomiting, sudden weight loss, and diarrhea – are often dismissed as “normal” in aging.

They also pointed out how people are surrounded by potential stressors like separation, divorce, career changes, chronic illnesses, menopause, and internalized biases in their midlife. Since EDs are often fueled by the need to control or deal with distressing experiences, it makes sense for people in their 30s and 40s to have it.

Keeping all that in mind, it’s clear that an eating disorder is not a condition that discriminates by age.

Myth #3: Living with eating disorders is a choice

This misconception is true not only for eating disorders but also for other mental illnesses. When it comes to EDs, most people assume that it’s a condition of choice that one adopts by sticking to an extreme diet.

But in truth, while ED is associated with problematic behavior or patterns associated with eating, the roots of this illness run much deeper. Contrary to popular belief, the onset of EDs in people has less to do with food than other psychological, environmental, and emotional factors influencing their lives.

More often than not, EDs are an outcome of trying to achieve a sense of control in one’s life. This overwhelming need for control can stem as a coping mechanism for emotional distress, traumatic experiences, as well as underlying issues of low self-esteem, perfectionism, anxiety, or depression.

While it’s impossible to narrow the exact cause behind every person’s encounter with ED, it is safe to say that it’s not a choice or vanity.

In fact, most people with EDs are uncomfortable about sharing their condition with their family and friends, often keeping it a secret. This behavior is most prominent in teenagers, who often wear baggy clothes and hide their bingeing/purging habits at home.

Perhaps if we all shed all misconceptions and try to give the truth a chance, more people living with EDs will be able to express their struggles in a safe, supportive space.

Myth #4: Only thin people suffer from eating disorders

The practice of making assumptions based on appearances is an old one. When it comes to EDs, like most assumptions, believing that only thin people can have them is false.

While this myth is partially true, it has originated from significant weight loss being a prominent symptom of anorexia nervosa. This, coupled with the intense fear of gaining weight, is why people with anorexia nervosa are often expected to look thin or emaciated.

However, not many people are familiar with atypical anorexia nervosa – a subtype of anorexia nervosa in which people struggle with the same symptoms without necessarily being underweight.

It’s also important to keep in mind that anorexia nervosa is not the only eating disorder that exists. For instance, binge eating disorder (BED) is most commonly diagnosed in people with larger body sizes.

Besides these recognized disorders, there is a whole range of other eating problems that do not match any specified criteria but still cause great distress.

Living with an ED is challenging enough as it is; the least we can do is let go of any stereotypes and only try to be kind and supportive to them however possible.

Myth #5: Someone living with an eating disorder cannot have any other mental illness

This is another myth that’s not typically about EDs but all mental conditions in general. For some unfathomable reason, people have made up their minds that one mental illness is enough for a person. Unfortunately for us all, things don’t work like that.

A study conducted at the University of Texas analyzed the genetic makeup of 11 psychiatric conditions. In conclusion, 152 shared genetic architectures were found across them all, including a genetic overlap between anorexia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, people with anorexia and bulimia nervosa are more likely to have anxiety disorders (OCD in particular) than those without EDs.

Evidence from multiple studies suggests that people with EDs are susceptible to other medical conditions like PTSD, substance abuse, and personality disorders.

If someone had diabetes and thyroid at once, how many of you would blink an eye at that? We’re sure many of us will find it completely normal. Why must we react so differently to mental conditions? Why can’t we be more empathetic?

Help is always available

Before we take your leave, we will debunk one last myth about EDs – one cannot recover from them.

Just like other mental illnesses, the treatment of EDs varies from person to person, with no single universal “cure” that fits all sizes. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for recovery. Research conducted at the National Library of Medicine shows that with the right treatment and support, people with EDs can recover – even if not fully – to a significant extent. 

If you are – or know – someone living with an ED, getting help from a professional dietitian can be the first step in your path to recovery. Starting psychotherapy has been known to bring about faster recovery; for teenagers living with EDs, opting for Family-based Treatment (FBT) might be helpful. 

Recovering from EDs is a journey that starts with self-acceptance but can be simplified significantly with the love and support of your family and loved ones.