Since it is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we at The Project thought it’s a great opportunity to tell you the truth about some common myths surrounding eating disorders. These myths are all harmful and could prevent people with eating disorders from seeking help, so they need to be addressed.
- Eating disorders are all about the desire to be thin.
Although a preoccupation with being thin is a symptom of some eating disorders, the reasons behind the behaviour are more complex. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, which many people don’t fully understand because the physical effects are more obvious than the physical effects of most other mental illnesses. Eating disorders often involve issues with self-esteem and control, which are manifested through behaviour around food and weight control. While physical health needs to be prioritised in many cases, such as when people with anorexia nervosa become dangerously underweight, successful treatment of eating disorders is usually dependent on tackling the psychological aspects.
- Eating disorders only affect teenage girls.
This myth is particularly dangerous, because it leads to people ignoring symptoms of eating disorders in males and people over 20. Anyone can develop an eating disorder at any time. An Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, conducted by the NHS in 2007, showed that up to 6.4% of adults displayed signs of an eating disorder – 25% of whom were male. While anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa affect more females than males, males still make up a significant percentage of sufferers. Binge eating disorder affects males and females equally and is most frequently diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 40. The stereotype of eating disorders only affecting teenage girls also risks eating disorders being considered a phase, rather than a mental illness, meaning sufferers might not get the help and support they need.
- Only skinny people have eating disorders.
While being underweight is a symptom of some eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, they can affect people of any weight. In fact, some eating disorders are associated with being overweight, including binge eating disorder. Eating disorders don’t always impact an individual’s weight and size, since symptoms vary and some behaviours can counteract other behaviours. For example, people with bulimia nervosa often maintain a healthy weight despite unhealthy behaviours like binge eating and inducing vomiting, because their overall calorific intake remains the same. It should also be considered that when someone has become severely underweight, they might have had an eating disorder for a considerable length of time – early intervention may depend on recognising other symptoms.
- Eating disorders are just extreme diets.
Again, this myth ignores the fact that eating disorders are mental illnesses. It also trivialises the symptoms and effects. Although some symptoms – such as cutting out foods and restricting calories – may resemble dieting, they could lead to malnutrition and other serious consequences. Viewing eating disorders as extreme diets also implies that they are phases which pass without intervention and treatment. This is rarely the case and people who have experienced eating disorders often struggle with related issues, which may be behavioural, emotional, psychological or physical, years after recovery.
- People with eating disorders are just doing it to fit in.
Unfortunately, there is an element of truth to this myth: society seems to be obsessed with weight, size and bodies, so people with eating disorders can internalise this and use it to justify their behaviour. However, like any other mental illness, suffering from an eating disorder is not a choice. Eating disorders do not result from a conscious decision to be thin (as myth number 1 claims), whether a desire to be thin is present or not. The psychology behind eating disorders is complex, so although fitting in with a certain group of people may be a factor, it is never the whole story.
We hope this brief session of myth-busting has helped you to sort the facts from the stereotypes. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder or is displaying symptoms of an eating disorder, please seek help. You can find lots of information at https://www.b-eat.co.uk/ and your GP can help you to access a variety of treatments.
This post was written by Hayley Jones, writer at Resurfacing and Rewriting and volunteer at The Project.