Unless you personally know someone who has been affected by an eating disorder, your only reference might be what you see in TV shows and movies. While it’s valuable to bring attention to these serious and complex illnesses, media outlets don't always show realistic depictions of eating disorders. They are often exaggerated and used just for plot devices—or worse, as a punchline.
To get a better idea of how an eating disorder can affect someone’s life, or be more supportive of a loved one with an eating disorder, here are some outdated myths about eating disorders that need to be debunked.
MYTH: Eating disorders only affect young, white, affluent women.
The demographics of who develops an eating disorder are far more diverse than most people realize. It’s true that women experience eating disorders at higher rates than men, but eating disorders affect people of all races, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, and ages.
Here are some statistics that may surprise you, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):
Men represent 25 percent of people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and 36 percent of people with binge-eating disorder (BED).
Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans have similar rates of eating disorders as white Americans but are less likely to seek treatment.
Bulimia nervosa impacts different age groups at similar rates: It affects 0.4 percent of Americans between the ages of 45 and 59, and 0.3 percent of Americans between 18 and 29.
Teenage girls from low-income families are 153 percent more likely to have bulimia than teenage girls from wealthy families.
Gay and bisexual men were 7 times more likely to engage in bingeing and 12 times more likely to engage in purging than straight men in one study.
Transgender individuals are at a significantly higher risk to develop an eating disorder than cisgender individuals.
Assuming all people with eating disorders are straight, young, wealthy, white women has serious consequences. For example, because eating disorders are often brushed off as a “woman’s disease,” many men delay treatment. As a result, men are more likely to die from anorexia nervosa than women because they are diagnosed and start treatment later.
MYTH: Eating disorders are just an extreme diet or lifestyle choice.
Eating disorders are not a choice. They are a serious and complex illness that are incredibly difficult to treat and overcome. From the outside, they may look like an obsessive diet (or exercise regimen), but on the inside, the person may be experiencing severe emotional distress or compulsions.
An individual may develop an eating disorder for a number of reasons, but researchers believe genetic, societal, familial, and environmental factors all contribute.
Notably, one study found that 97 percent of people hospitalized for an eating disorder had a co-occurring mental or mood disorder, according to the NEDA. Common comorbidities included major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders (especially generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder), or a substance use disorder.
MYTH: You can tell who has an eating disorder by looking at them.
Chances are, you know several people who suffer from an eating disorder and don’t even realize it. You may have even dined with them and not noticed anything unusual. People with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and some may look perfectly healthy from the outside but be dangerously ill on the inside.
Plus, different types of eating disorders can have different effects on the body. Among the most prevalent types of eating disorders, only anorexia nervosa uses weight as criteria for diagnosis.
MYTH: Someone with an eating disorder just needs to eat right.
It’s a mistake to tell someone with anorexia nervosa to “just eat a burger” or someone with BED to “just stop bingeing.” Not only is it insensitive, but it also is unlikely to yield positive results.
People with eating disorders may silently struggle with fears, paranoia, or compulsions about food or body image. The anxiety surrounding foods may be acutely disturbing, and it may lead to thoughts and behaviors around food that appear irrational to an observer.
Treatment involves not just restoring a healthy relationship with food, but addressing the deeper issues the individual is experiencing. For example, people with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa tend to set unrealistically high standards for themselves and have obsessive-compulsive personality traits (like perfectionism and excessive cautiousness).
Eating disorders have long been misunderstood, and busting myths may help beat the stigma and encourage more people to seek the necessary and life-saving treatment. After all, anorexia nervosa has the highest rate of mortality of any mental disorder, according to NIMH.
Early treatment increases the chance of recovery and reduces the chance of relapse. If you believe you or a loved one may have an eating disorder, or are engaging in risky eating behaviors, talk to a professional.