Eating Disorders: Mythbusting II

– Rose Liddell

Following on from Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I thought it would be appropriate to write an article busting myths about eating disorders. Eating Disorders are probably one of the most controversial mental health difficulties in contemporary society, and as a result many people with eating disorders experience severe stigmatisation and misunderstanding. There are a lot of myths surrounding eating disorders, so this article is about dispelling these myths in the hope that eating disorders can be understood without prejudice and that those suffering from eating disorders are given the same empathy and support as we would expect to have for suffering from any physical illness.

Myth One: Eating Disorders are a lifestyle choice 

One of the most common myths about eating disorders is that eating disorders are similar to going on a diet, there is the misconception that eating disorders are purely about the goal of losing weight and therefore, it is easy for the person suffering from an eating disorder to stop or to decide to eat more to put on weight. Some even have the view that having an eating disorder is merely being vain or “attention seeking”, losing weight just to look “thin” or to attract attention to themselves.

Myth-bust: Eating Disorders are not necessarily about the goal of losing weight or trying to be thin. Eating disorders, like many other mental health difficulties, have complex causes and so it’s really difficult to try and find one standard trigger or cause for why a person can develop an eating disorder. Furthermore, for many suffering from an eating disorder, it is such a burden that it is often incapacitating, some suffering from an eating disorder are incapable by themselves of putting on the weight that they need to to in order to survive, so in that instance, it can be incredibly hard to stop or eat more when the illness has such a hold on the person. Therefore, having an eating disorder is not something that a person chooses or wants, and it can be incredibly hard to just “deal with” and “get out of”. Furthermore, an eating disorder is not merely a “phase” or a “fad” that a person goes through, but a genuine mental health difficulty that should receive empathy and the offer of treatment as with any physical or mental illness.

Myth Two: Eating disorders are just about someone’s relationship with food

There is the misconception that an eating disorders is just about the relationship with food, and that the problem of binge eating or perhaps controlling the amount of food that you eat is purely to do with whatever feelings and attitudes a person has towards eating.

Myth-bust: Eating disorders are highly complex and difficult to understand. There are multiple causes and triggers, which means that someone experiencing an eating disorder is not just having nonstandard attitudes towards food. Some eating disorders can arise as a way of coping with a particular external situation that is affecting the person. The ability to control something such as food might be the only way in which a person affected can cope with whatever is happening around them. However, even if we can factor in what is happening in that person’s external situation, it is still difficult to pinpoint exactly what brings about an eating disorder.

Myth Three: If someone has an eating disorder, then we should blame the family

Some take the view that someone suffering from an eating disorder has the eating disorder because of their family. They may argue that families cause the person to suffer from an eating disorder and therefore it is the family’s fault why someone suffers from an eating disorder in the first place.

Myth-Bust: The idea that it is the family’s fault why someone is suffering from an eating disorder is a historical idea that actually is a complete myth and has no factual basis. Eating disorders are genuine mental health difficulties and as a result cannot be in the control of the person suffering or indeed the family.

Eating disorders, like many other mental health difficulties, can place a heavy emotional burden not just on the sufferer but also on their loved ones, and families can often feel powerless watching their loved one suffer as their physical and mental well-being deteriorates whilst being helpless to do anything to stop it. On the other hand, families can actually be key into helping that person recover, and there is lots that they can do to help.

Myth Four: Eating disorders only affect young girls and women

Myth Bust: Whilst statistically, more females appear to suffer from eating disorders than men, at the same time these same statistics clearly show that there are a large number of men who get eating disorders too. Mental health difficulties can affect anyone. They make no discrimination as far as age, race or gender is concerned, so to assume that an eating disorder can only affect females is a fundamental mistake. It may be that statistically more females suffer from eating disorders (why this is we might not understand quite yet), but perhaps part of the reason why statistically women appear to suffer from eating disorders more so than men is that there is much less awareness of men suffering from eating disorders. Perhaps men are less likely to come forward and reveal they have an eating disorder. As a society, we expect eating disorders to affect women more than men, perhaps because of media pressures for women to pay attention to their appearances, and in particular to be “thin”, it surprises us when we find that men suffer from eating disorders too. But as discussed previously, eating disorders are not brought primarily due to media pressures or influences to be thin but are a combination of highly complex factors. Most importantly, eating disorders often have a genuine biological basis, which makes onset independent of external environmental factors. What is worth noting is that both for men and women, eating disorders are on the increase. Both men and women with eating disorders should be treated equally with the same degree of empathy and support.

Myth Five: It is easy to tell if someone is suffering from an eating disorder

There is a view that it is easy to identify someone suffering from an eating disorder, due to the fact that there are drastic changes in their weight and appearance to an extent that they don’t look “normal”.

Myth Bust: Someone does not have to have drastic physical changes in order to have an eating disorder. Those who are bulimic, for example, have a relatively “normal” weight, so someone suffering from an eating disorder cannot necessarily be identified by their size and weight alone. Someone who looks “thin” may not necessarily be suffering from an eating disorder, but someone who looks overweight may be suffering from a compulsive overeating disorder. Therefore, the view that it is easy to tell if someone is suffering from an eating disorder is mistaken.

Eating disorders can be highly challenging to a person’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. It’s important to recognise all aspects of what someone with an eating disorder is going through, rather than just focussing on the physical effects, the effects you might be able to see. Eating disorders should be taken very seriously, as should any other mental health difficulties.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible for a person to recover, given the right support and treatment. By becoming aware of eating disorders and their complex nature, we can help to reduce the stigma surrounding eating disorders and create a better understanding of how eating disorders work. That way, we’ll be able to give more effective help and support to those who are suffering.

Check out Student Minds’ resources on understanding eating disorders and how to a friend or close one with an eating disorder: www.studentminds.org.uk/understanding-eating-disorders.html

B-eat is an eating disorders charity in the UK with information and resources on eating disorders: www.b-eat.co.uk 

Information about eating disorders and common myths can also be found on the National Institute of Mental Health’s website at http://www.nimh.nih.gov.

There is also information and advice for support on the Alliance for Eating Disorders website which can be found at the address: http://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com.

For children and young people suffering from eating disorders, Childline also offers help and support as well as information about eating disorders for young people. 

For men with eating disorders, check out Men Get Eating Disorders Too: http://mengetedstoo.co.uk/

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