Melissa Burgess Moser PhD
MYTH: Individuals with eating disorders are vain and are not in serious distress.
FACT: Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. These disorders are complex and influence an individuals’ emotional, cognitive, and physical health. At their worst, these disorders make it difficult for sufferers to think about anything else besides food, exercise, and finding ways to eliminate calorie intake. Individuals with eating disorders are also more likely to experience depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and other addictions. Eating disorders represent much more than issues with body image; they typically develop to help individuals to cope with difficult life stressors, strong emotions, and challenging interactions with others in their lives.
MYTH: It isn’t that complicated; individuals with eating disorders just have to get over themselves and eat.
FACT: Once individuals start restricting their food intake, over-exercising, or binging and purging their bodies start to enter a state of semi-starvation. This semi-starvation state leads to food obsessions and aversions, rigidity and a loss of control around food, and depression and anxiety. Once individuals reach this semi-starvation state, their brains start to increase the production of endorphins. This increased production of endorphins tries to accommodate for the physical damages that are being caused by malnutrition. Individuals with eating disorders quickly start to develop an increased reliance on these endorphins. This increase reliance makes it very difficult for individuals to stop their eating disorder behaviour, such as over-exercising, binging or purging, or following through on loved ones’ suggestion to “just eat one more bite”, without a great deal of professional support. This video by Laura Hill provides a great example for what it is like to live inside the head of someone with an eating disorder.
MYTH: Eating disorders are only diagnosed in young women.
FACT: It is true that eating disorders are more likely to develop in adolescent or young women. But many individuals do not seek treatment until later in life. Men and transgendered individuals also suffer from eating disorders that may focus on weight but also the appearance and size of the muscles.
MYTH: My eating disorder isn’t serious enough for professional treatment; I’m not anorexic or severely underweight.
FACT: Not all sufferers are underweight; individuals with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Individuals who engage in binging and/or purging are at risk for serious bodily harm including, but not limited to, anemia, electrolyte imbalances, heart failure, fainting, reproductive issues, cognitive confusion, memory difficulties, tears and ruptures in the lining of the throat and esophagus, bloody vomit, and ulcers.
MYTH: Eating disorders develop from bad parenting.
FACT: Although there is a genetic component to these disorders, there is no evidence to suggest that parenting styles solely contribute to the development of an eating disorder. In fact, there is more evidence to suggest that treatment can be improved with the support of family members.
MYTH: Dieting is a healthy and normal.
FACT: Certain individuals grow up believing they have more control over the weight than they actually do. Individuals have a genetically based set point weight and it nearly impossible to move more than +/- 10 lbs outside this range. Almost all dieters gain back their lost weight within 5 years. There is research to suggest that individuals can even gain additional weight from dieting. This video by Sandra Aamodt explains this research very well.
The following information sheet has been created and adapted from NEDIC: Myths about Eating Disorders (http://www.nedc.com.au/myths) and the following additional resources:
Grilo, C. & Mitchell, J.E. (2010). The treatment of eating disorders: A clinical handbook. Guilford Press. New York.
National Institute for Mental Health
National Eating Disorder Information Center (Canada)
National Eating Disorder Association (United States)
Center for Clinical Interventions: Eating Disorders (UK and Australia)