We are nearing the end of #NEDAwareness Week 2015. These seven days are very close to my heart—throughout over three decades as a therapist in this field, I have seen the devastation that eating disorders can cause to wonderful people and caring families. Our society has come a long way with eating disorder awareness in the past decade—more people know that these mental illnesses exist, more people know how serious they are and more people know that they are not simply a lifestyle choice or a “diet gone wrong.” However, we still have a ways to go until everyone touched by an eating disorder has the best chance at lasting recovery.
To this end, humor me for a moment and close your eyes. In your mind, picture someone with an eating disorder. Now tell me—is the person you see very thin? Is the person you see a woman? Is the person you see in their teens or early 20s? Is the person you see white? If you’re like most people, you answered yes to all four of these questions. These are four shockingly common eating disorder myths, and in honor of NEDAW, I want to explain why these basic assumptions are wrong and challenge the accurate identification, diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders.
Myth #1: People with eating disorders are very thin/skinny/underweight.
The reality: Eating disorders affect people of all shapes and sizes. Many people with eating disorders including bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other compulsive eating syndromes are normal weighted or overweight. It is true that some people struggling with eating disorders are very thin—in fact, a diagnostic criteria of anorexia nervosa is refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height. These individuals will often go to great lengths to hide their weight loss under baggy clothes or withdraw from social situations where friends and loved ones would likely voice concern. The bottom line? You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them—behaviors and thoughts related to food, eating and body image must be explored as well.
Myth #2: Eating disorders are a women’s illness.
The reality: Eating disorders can and do affect males. While it has been estimated that men and boys represent 10 percent of individuals struggling with eating disorders, recent research suggests that men and boys account for up to 25 percent of individuals suffering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and related eating and body image illnesses. Friends, families and even trained medical and mental healthcare professionals miss common warning signs of an eating disorder in males because they fall prey to the traditional gender constructs of who suffers from an eating disorder.
Myth #3: Eating disorders occur in the teenage years.
The reality: 95 percent of eating disorders develop between the ages of 12 and 25. However, many people struggle with their eating disorder for years, sometimes decades, before being accurately diagnosed and seeking specialized treatment, meaning that they are at a more advanced stage of life when their eating disorder becomes apparent to others. In some cases, an eating disorder will develop in mid- or later-life. In general, individuals that experience later-onset eating disorders have a genetic predisposition toward developing this illness, and the illness was triggered by a life event such as divorce, death of a spouse, parent or child or a traumatic experience.
Myth #4: Eating disorders only affect wealthy white people.
The reality: Eating disorders do not discriminate on race or socioeconomic class. Anyone can develop an eating disorder resulting from the complex interplay of genetics, psychological status, cultural influences and life experiences. Mental health parity laws—requiring that insurance benefits for mental health conditions be equal to benefits for medical conditions—have made specialized eating disorder treatment more financially accessible to all patients and families regardless of life circumstance, and some treatment providers offer payment flexibility in the form of financing, scholarships or sliding scale billing.
Misconceptions about eating disorders remain pervasive in our society and these serious illnesses are often overlooked in major segments of the population. As a result, fewer people are accurately diagnosed and effective intervention is delayed, which challenges the likelihood of lasting recovery.
What other eating disorder myths are common in our society? Comment below and share your thoughts to help advance eating disorder awareness during NEDAW 2015!