Educate Yourself: the Fact and Fiction of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are serious illnesses that affect both mental and physical health. These conditions take many forms, but what different eating disorders have in common is that the person has a non-typical relationship with food or with their body.
Most of us have heard of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, but we don’t talk about them much. By having a more open and judgment-free conversation, we can create a safer place for those who are struggling with eating disorders.
To start, we can address some common misunderstandings that add to ongoing shame around eating disorders. Here’s what the experts have to say about some of the things people often get wrong.
#1: Eating disorders are just about looks.
Because eating disorders affect the way you look, people who suffer from them are often thought of as shallow and only focused on their looks. Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, says:
“There is a dangerous and persistent misconception that eating disorders are vanity issues… [But] These aren’t just disorders you see on the surface. Media coverage tends to focus on physical and medical complications, which are realities. But…Treatment requires a comprehensive approach to address the complex issues that are driving these damaging behaviors and thought patterns.”
There is more than meets the eye with eating disorders. In fact, it is common that people with eating disorders are also suffering from another mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or body dysmorphia (which causes someone to have an unrealistic view of their own looks).
#2: Eating disorders only affect [women, thin people, rich people, etc…]
When we think of illnesses like anorexia or bulimia, the image of a skinny female model may come to mind. Tammy Beasly, VP of Clinical Nutrition Services at Alsana, says:
“The assumption? Eating disorders only affect thin, adolescent Caucasian girls…The reality is eating disorders cannot be defined by body size, age, race, gender, social status, or family dynamics. Eating disorders are multi-dimensional and treatment needs to be the same.”1
Eating disorders can affect anyone. Our assumptions about the “type” of person who has an eating disorder can be dangerous if they stop us from noticing unhealthy eating activity in our friends, our families, and ourselves.
#3: There is one specific weight or body type that is “healthy”.
There are dozens of complicated outside causes that play into eating disorders, especially about looks and health. Society, Hollywood, and social media have a lot to say about what is healthy and what looks good. Mixed messages and wrong messages can lead to unhealthy thought patterns and dangerous eating behaviors.
“The sad reality is that our society is obsessed with thinness and weight loss… Eating disordered behaviors continue to be applauded by society and even, tragically, by medical providers, as a result.”1
Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani of The Gaudiani Clinic also says that mistaken beliefs about weight cause us to make assumptions about people’s health just based on how they look.
“There’s a common misconception that if someone isn’t visibly malnourished or underweight, they must be fine. Or worse, if someone is in a larger body, they must need to lose weight to be healthy.”1
One lesson we can take from the words of these experts: eating disorders can affect just about anyone, no matter their gender, weight, or social status. Their unhealthy eating behaviors may be caused by pressure from society, pressure from themselves, or possibly other mental health disorders.
By taking the time to debunk these misunderstandings, you have a more informed view of eating disorders, and you are more ready to help yourself or someone you know that is struggling. Please use this guide from the Mayo Clinic for more advice on how to spot and help someone who may have an eating disorder.