The myths about eating disorders

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Hi, I’m Rachel Elder, a Nursing student at the University of Edinburgh and a Young Ambassador for The Mix. I’m passionate about discussing mental health and hope to inspire other young people to feel confident enough to be open about their own experiences.

Challenging the myths about eating disorders

Last week was Eating Disorder (ED) Awareness Week – an opportunity to raise awareness and remove the stigma that surrounds these diseases.

I personally have struggled with my eating disorder for about six years. There’s so much I’d love to write about to raise awareness around these illnesses, but I think one of the most important things to focus on is the number of misconceptions around eating disorders. So, please allow me to bust some of the myths around these diseases…

Myth: Eating disorders have ‘a look’

One of the biggest misconceptions around ED’s is that sufferers must have a certain appearance to be truly struggling. The first image that springs to people’s mind when they hear the words ‘eating disorder’ is an emaciated body. This is so far from the reality of ED’s.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses, not weight disorders. Some sufferers don’t lose any weight at all. Others might lose weight but never be underweight. Some people may actually gain weight. Regardless of this, their illness is still valid, and their suffering still matters.

For the sake of everyone who doesn’t feel worthy of help because they don’t meet a certain BMI criterion, we have to remember that we can’t ‘see’ a mental illness.

Myth: Anorexia is the only ED

Following from the last point, anorexia is not the only ED. It may surprise people to know that only 8% of those with an ED are diagnosed with anorexia. It is in fact OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder) that is the most common disease with 47% of sufferers having this diagnosis.

There are also other common disorders aside from anorexia such as bulimia nervosa, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) and binge eating disorder.
The perception that you only have an ED if you are anorexic/underweight is a huge barrier to individuals accessing treatment, so it’s so important for the general public and professionals to look past this myth.

Myth: ED’s only affect white, female teens

Again, no. Modern day media and most films or documentaries which focus on eating disorders focus on sufferers who are young, white females. The truth is that ED’s impact people of every race, every gender and every social/economic background.

Even current statistics may not fully represent the number of males and individuals of ethnic minorities who are suffering as these groups of people are often less likely to come forward for help and support due to the stigma around gender and race.

Myth: Eating disorders are a lifestyle choice

Eating disorders are not the same as a diet or lifestyle choice. They are diseases which completely alter a person’s thought process and everyday life and are not chosen by sufferers. ED’s develop slowly over time and cannot just be ‘snapped out of’.

Myth: To recover you need to ‘just eat’.

Just as ED’s are not simply ‘chosen’, recovery also isn’t as simple as ‘just eating’. Eating disorders are about coping with complex and overwhelming feelings, not about food. They are often a coping mechanism or mean of gaining control when the sufferer feels that they can’t control other aspects of their life.

Even if a sufferer were to stop using disordered behaviours, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that they are recovered. The thought processes behind eating disorders are much more complicated to unpick than the behaviours themselves and therapy usually focuses more on the psychological aspects of the disorder than a person’s weight.

Find out more about my recovery journey here.

Myth: Your ED is only valid if you have been hospitalised

The idea that an ED is only valid if the individual has been inpatient in a hospital for treatment stems from the myth that anorexia is the most serious eating disorder. This isn’t the truth; people die from all types of eating disorder and are equally hospitalised with any diagnosis.

However, being hospitalised does not make an ED valid. Only a tiny percentage of sufferers will ever be hospitalised for their disorder and recovering at home does not make an individual’s suffering any less severe.

There is no shame for having the strength to recover at home and equally no shame in needing the extra support that hospital provides. Both forms of recovery require an intense bravery and should be applauded.

If you suffer with an eating disorder, you deserve support

In conclusion, all eating disorders are serious and all sufferers deserve equal support and access to treatment.

There are a lot of myths around eating disorders, but I truly hope that this article has provided some clarity surrounding some of the most common misconceptions. I would also definitely encourage anyone interested in learning more, those looking for support or individuals looking to better support a loved one to check out Beat’s website.

Read Molly’s guide to coping with an eating disorder during lockdown.

And, for anyone personally suffering, please know that recovery is 100% achievable.

If you want to speak to someone, The Mix’s support services are completely free and confidential. Reach out to their team of experts and trained volunteers, who are there to help with anything that’s on your mind.

Next Steps

  • Beat help people overcome eating disorders through helplines, online support and self-help groups. Call 0808 801 0677 or, if you're under 18, call their Youthline on 0808 801 0711.
  • Eating Disorders Support has a telephone helpline with 24/7 answer message service and email support for people with eating disorders and anyone concerned about them. Call on 01494 793223.
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 11-Mar-2021

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