I loved the positive feedback from last month’s column on why not to have dieting be a New Year’s resolution. With eating disorder awareness week right around the corner, and as a therapist who treats eating disorders in my practice, I thought I’d continue along those lines for one more month and debunk some common myths.
Myth: You need to be emaciated/thin to have an eating disorder.
This is one of the biggest myths and is largely due to the media’s consistently inaccurate portrayal. The reality is people of all shapes and sizes can and do suffer with eating disorders. In fact, you likely would not be able to tell just by looking at someone whether they have an eating disorder and that is so important to remember.
“But you don’t look sick” is irrelevant. I personally know people who died from their eating disorders in average and above average weight bodies. Anyone in any body can suffer with an eating disorder and it’s all equally concerning. Just because you have a friend that seemingly looks and acts “fine,” it does not mean it’s true – especially as secrecy and shame is often a part of the illness and many times people struggling will go to great lengths to hide their disorders.
Myth: Getting over an eating disorder is simple. Just eat in moderation!
Eating disorders are mental illnesses and there is increasing evidence that they’re brain based, not just a diet gone wrong. Telling someone with bulimia or binge eating disorder to just eat in moderation or telling someone with anorexia to eat a burger is pointless because many times they know intellectually what it means to eat “normally,” but they just can’t. Mental illnesses are irrational and complex. People who suffer from eating disorders are often tormented by their illness but still struggle to get better. Recovery requires professional help.
Myth: Social media/culture/magazines are to blame for eating disorders.
Our culture’s obsession with thinness and dieting definitely plays a role, but blaming just one thing is simplifying a disorder that’s much more complex. “Biology loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger” is how I’ve heard experts explain the development of eating disorders. We just don’t see everyone who diets developing eating disorders, but if someone has the biology and personality propensity, outside factors can be a trigger.
Myth: Eating disorders are a choice.
No one chooses to wake up every day and be tormented from morning to night. No one chooses to live with their heads in the toilet. No one chooses to be so terrified of food that they can’t go out with friends or be part of any social activities for fear of involvement with food. No one chooses to spend money they don’t have to spend on food that they feel compelled to eat until they are in agonizing pain. Eating disorders are not a choice, but an illness with a strong biological component. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness and are something that should be taken very seriously.