Knowledge is power, but when it comes to eating disorders, there is a lot of misinformation that is out there. Sadly, this lack of knowledge of accurate information about eating disorders can even extend to health care professionals. With conflicting messages about what is true, it can be hard to sort out what information is accurate.
Because I have lived now over half of my life with an eating disorder, I’ve learned a lot of stuff (mostly out of necessity), and I have become aware of some eating disorder myths and stereotypes that exist. In this post, I am going to go over a few of these myths and debunk them.
What are eating disorders?
Anorexia means starving yourself and being emaciated. Bulimia is bingeing and purging. And… that’s all.
Eating disorders are most commonly described as complicated biopsychosocial mental health conditions that impact all bodily symptoms, the brain, and can have devastating consequences such as death. The most commonly recognized eating disorders are: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and EDNOS/ OSFED (eating disorder not otherwise specified/ other specified feeding or eating disorder). Eating disorders involve some type of dysfunctional behavior(s) around food, including restricting food or caloric intake, fasting for long periods of time, using compensatory behaviors after eating such as purging, laxatives, diuretics, or overexercising, and/ or bingeing, or eating a large amount of food (of course there is social construction around what is considered “large”) in a discrete period of time.
Many eating disorder behaviors overlap. People who have suffered from an ED for a considerable length of time frequently experience diagnostic cross-over. Thus, these symptoms are neither clear-cut, nor are they necessarily noticeable. Eating disorder behaviors are often done in secret. Also, people with bulimia or binge eating disorder may not be over- or under- weight. Similarly, those who struggle with anorexia may not be emaciated.
It is important that people educate themselves about the impact of eating disorder behaviors and rely less on stereotypes of how eating disorders are culturally portrayed… namely how someone with an eating disorder “should” look or behave.
Who gets eating disorders?
Privileged white adolescents.
Anyone! While eating disorders are most represented in the media as occurring in Caucasian women of upper or upper middle class SES in a Western country, people of all races, sexual orientations, genders, economic statuses, and ages can develop eating disorders. There is a serious lack of representation of other eating disorder voices, which is why I’m really happy that this Marginalized Voices Project exists. We need to get better media representation of what eating disorders are like and who they affect.
Males, older women (40+), as well as people who are gay and of other racial groups, who have EDs are getting increased attention because—well, they get eating disorders too. Sadly, treatment is not necessarily tailored to them, and it needs to be.
What are the causes of eating disorders?
Eating disorders are caused by Western media, trauma, families, or other environmental factors.
Eating disorders cannot be pinpointed as being caused by one given factor. If you’ve ever taken a statistics class, maybe you’ll remember that correlation does not imply causation. Just because eating disorders exist (or are identified) in predominantly Western-influenced cultures, that doesn’t mean that culture CAUSES eating disorders.
Similarly, any risk and precipitating factors—a traumatic situation, an unhealthy family system—cannot be said to CAUSE an eating disorder. Perhaps these factors may increase the likelihood of an eating disorder developing, or they could be precipitating factors, but they are not the cause or fault of culture, or a family, or trauma.
I would also heed caution in that there has been an increase of media coming from companies such as Dove challenging cultural perceptions of body image. This is all good. I am a fan of challenging the oppressive body-image status quo. However, there is a difference between eating disorders and disordered eating or general body image issues. A girl might have negative feelings about her body from reading fitness magazines, but that is completely different from that girl developing a serious eating disorder.
Also, there is a significant biological basis of eating disorders that is still being explored. One study by Bulik and colleagues in 2006 suggests that anorexia is among one of the more heritable psychiatric disorders (0.56 as reported in her study).
All that to say, in general, there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to a cause or causes of eating disorders. My stats 101 lecture for the day: Be very, very careful about language pertaining to causation. Eating disorder research is being conducted because so little is understood still. There is not enough available knowledge to determine that something is a cause (or even causes) of an eating disorder. Talk about risk factors, talk about precipitating factors, talk about comorbid conditions, that’s fine. But talking about a cause suggests that 1+ factors completely explain the manifestation of someone’s eating disorder, and that is not something that can be said at this time.
What are the treatments for eating disorders?
Once you have an eating disorder, you never get over it.
You just need to eat.
Eating disorders can be treatment resistant. I am living proof of that. However, treatment can also be effective. Recovery is possible. People don’t have to struggle with eating disorders forever and ever until they die. Recovery is not easy, and it may take time… a lot of time. Like years. Maybe more. But it can happen.
While eating disorders can be difficult to treat, certain treatments have been shown to be effective: CBT, DBT, family-based therapy, perhaps even acceptance and commitment therapy. I have more thoughts pertaining to this, but right now I will just say that there are some good options out there. I have been privileged to have seen a lot of great therapists who specialize in eating disorders, and I have been a part of treatment programs that have used all of the above treatment modalities.
People with eating disorders are not lost causes. They are not resistant, difficult, or frustrating. They are hurt and scared. They are in desperate need of empathy and understanding.
Notice that none of the treatment I have mentioned involves locking people up and force-feeding them. I had an acquaintance who once said, “If I got an eating disorder, my parents wouldn’t have put up with it. They would have just locked me in my room until I ate.” Honestly, good luck with that. Because I’m pretty sure that’s not addressing the problem. As in, I’m totally sure. That’s not going to work.
For whatever reason, people can have this mis-perception that the problem is the food, and all we need to do is make these people freaking eat. I both agree and disagree with that– it both is and isn’t about the food. I do not think that people can delve into root causes of their eating disorder while engaging in eating disorder behaviors, but I also don’t think that magically eating will fix everything.
So: there are some treatments that exist for eating disorders that work. Maybe the treatments that exist could be improved, but eating disorders are not untreatable.