Reality Check: 5 Myths About Eating Disorders

Let's give up this unhealthy perspective.

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While many people view meals as a time to come together with family and friends to share food and possibly experience a new culture, it can be a great source of pain for someone wrestling with an eating disorder. 

There are roughly 30 million Americans who suffer from eating disorders (ED), but it doesn't always look like what we think it does. Myths and misinformation about how people are affected by an ED can allow them to continue their dangerous behavior, even to the point where it may threaten their lives.

Here are 5 myths about eating disorders we need to stop believing:

Myth 1: It's okay to starve yourself if you're overweight or obese.

There are many known health detriments associated with obesity, and with that comes an enormous amount of pressure to lose weight. No matter how much weight someone wants to lose, it's important to do it the healthy way and not resort to drastic dieting to drop pounds as fast as possible.

Even if someone has a lot of fat stored up to provide their body with energy, they still need to get enough to eat so they are getting all of the necessary vitamins and nutrients to keep their body healthy. Developing an eating disorder puts undue strain on the body and can permanently harm their metabolism.

Unfortunately, it's harder to identify when a bigger person is losing weight in an unhealthy way and may ultimately be praised for harming themselves, which poet Blythe Baird addressed this in her poignant piece, "When The Fat Girl Gets Skinny."

"If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with, you to go the hospital," she says. "If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with, you are a success story."

No matter what a person's weight is, starvation is not healthy.

Myth 2: Only teenage girls can have eating disorders.

When most people think of someone suffering from an eating disorder, we tend to think of teenage girls who are obsessing over their weights in response to pressure from the media or friends. While there certainly are many people with EDs who fall into that category, it's not limited to it.

Some children begin their EDs long before their teen years, even as young as 6 years old. The desire to control one's weight and diet isn't limited to a person's youth, as there are many adults — even some well into their 50s — who struggle with eating disorders. 

It's not even a problem that's specific to women, either. Approximately 1 in 4 people with eating disorders are men.  

By understanding that there's no one type of person who can have an eating disorder, we may be able to recognize the signs in those who might not seek help otherwise.

Myth 3: All eating disorders involve starvation.

Anorexia nervosa is the stereotypical eating disorder, in which a person takes in far fewer calories than they should be. But it's not the only one. 

Those who suffer from bulimia, for example, may eat a normal amount, but vomit or abuse laxatives in order to get the food out of their bodies before they can fully digest it. This isn't a healthier alternative, as the body is still deprived of what it needs, along with the added trauma of vomiting. Stomach acid can harm the esophagus and cause extensive tooth decay by eroding enamel. 

Not every eating disorder involves withholding food from the body. Those who suffer from binge-eating regularly take in a lot more food than they should at one sitting. This can turn into a vicious cycle as the behavior can cause strong feelings of shame, but treating that pain may be done with food. 

Myth 4: Everyone with an eating disorder has body dysmorphia.

Body dysmorphia is a disorder that severely skews the way a person views themselves. While everyone judges their own body more harshly than other people do, dysmorphia can impact the quality of a person's life because they are so consumed with anxiety over traits that they believe to be flaws. This can lead to an endless series of plastic surgeries in an effort to improve their looks, even though they'll rarely be happy with the results.

Someone who strongly believes they are overweight when they're not might develop an eating disorder in order to lose weight, but not everyone with an ED also suffers from dysmorphia. 

Myth 5: People with eating disorders don't understand proper nutrition.

While there are certainly people who are underweight or overweight out of ignorance of proper nutrition, that doesn't really apply to someone with a true eating disorder. 

Though it might seem strange to say, eating disorders aren't actually about food; they're about the control over food. When a person feels like they can't control anything in their lives, they might turn that helpless feeling toward complete control over the food they eat, whether they're not eating enough or eating too much. Sending them to nutrition classes, force-feeding, or limiting access to food won't fix the underlying problem. 

For this reason, it can also be difficult to tell someone with an ED that their behavior is unhealthy and worrying, because it can be seen as an attempt to take away the one thing they feel they control. 

The Final Word:

Eating disorders are psychological conditions that can cause permanent damage to the body and can even be fatal.

Myths about eating disorders make it harder for those who are suffering to feel comfortable seeking out treatment. When we have a better understanding of eating disorders, we will be able to better recognize when someone is suffering.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 and reach out for help. Overcoming eating disorders can be difficult and there's no reason to do it alone.

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