8 eating disorder myths

No items found.
No items found.

Many misconceptions about eating disorders are stigmatizing and harmful to those struggling with these conditions. Below are eight eating disorder myths we have unpacked to help change conversations around eating disorders.

Last updated on 
January 21, 2022
In this article

Myth #1 - You can tell someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them

Thanks to inaccurate media portrayals, a common eating disorder myth is that someone must be thin  to have an eating disorder. But the reality is, many people struggling with an eating disorder are not underweight. (1)

Eating disorders can present in many ways and affect people of all body sizes and shapes. For example, people most often associate anorexia nervosa (AN), which often leads to severe weight loss, with being very thin. But individuals who have anorexia can be within “normal” weight range and be fat. This is currently referred to as “atypical” anorexia. (2)

People with bulimia nervosa (BN), which is characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors like vomiting or purging, may be “normal” weight or be “overweight.” (3) And in atypical bulimia nervosa, a person may exhibit some symptoms of this disorder, but concern about body size or shape may be absent or their disordered eating episodes may not be frequent enough to meet the criteria for bulimia. 

This myth is particularly harmful to fat people, because others may not believe they have an eating disorder. Doctors and loved ones alike may engage in weight discrimination and serve as barriers to treatment. Moreover, this misconception may cause people to avoid seeking treatment, due to the false belief that they have to be severely underweight to have an eating disorder. 

Myth #2 - Only teen girls or young women get eating disorders

Eating disorders do affect teen girls and young women at higher rates. But they aren’t the only demographic affected. Eating disorders affect people of all different ages, from children to older adults. And they affect people of all genders, including cis men, trans men, trans women, gender diverse, and nonbinary individuals. Because of this harmful myth, many people do not get the treatment they need. (1)

This myth is also present when we examine things like how people talk about eating disorders, which photos accompany articles about eating disorders in books or online, which studies are funded, and which specialized programs are established at treatment facilities. In all these cases, teen girls and young women have been the focus in a way that other genders or demographics have not. Being aware of this myth will also help treatment providers and medical professionals provide more inclusive care.

Myth #3 - Eating disorders only occur in adolescence

Although many eating disorders do develop during adolescence, they are not a phase that will resolve on their own once a person reaches adulthood. Treating an eating disorder like a phase neglects to acknowledge the severity of these conditions and their harmful effects. Getting specialized treatment can help individuals with eating disorders to recover much more successfully than waiting for the disordered eating behaviors to disappear. (4)

Myth #4 – Disordered eating is a choice

Eating disorders are no different than other mental health disorders, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, in that individuals do not choose to have them. Eating disorders are complex, multi-faceted conditions without one single cause. Rather, several social, biological, and environmental risk factors may increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders also commonly co-occur with other mental health disorders, like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and major depression. Regardless of how or why someone has developed a pattern of disordered eating, it’s not the person’s fault and they did not choose to have this condition. (1)

Myth #5 - Eating disorders are just a way to get attention

This misconception goes hand in hand with the previous one. Much like eating disorders are not a choice, they are also not a ploy for attention. This myth causes immense shame in those struggling with eating disorders. An eating disorder like diabulimia is a severe psychiatric and medical condition that can have potentially dangerous effects on a person’s health.

Myth #6 - Parents are the cause of an eating disorder in their child

While many parents may blame themselves for their child’s condition, parents cannot cause an eating disorder like binge eating disorder to develop. Rather, an eating disorder develops due to many different predisposing factors that interact in a complex way. These risk factors may include genetic and environmental influences.

How parents talk about their own weight and eating and exercise habits may affect their child, however. So it’s important to set a positive example and to model a healthy relationship with food and body image. Self-criticism or poor self-esteem in a parent doesn’t cause an eating disorder in their child, and blaming a parent will only result in guilt and shame. Instead, eating disorder recovery is a great opportunity for a parent to play a healing and healthy role. (4)

Myth #7 - There is no such thing as too much exercise

Exercise, especially joyful, mindful movement, can have plenty of mental and physical health benefits. But too much can have detrimental consequences, especially if the person is also not consuming enough food. Exercise addiction is a disorder that presents in a way that may appear “healthy” to onlookers. But it is just as dangerous as an eating disorder. Excessive exercise can lead to overuse problems, such as shin splints, stress fractures, arthritis, and cartilage damage, as well as other negative effects like dehydration, fatigue, osteoporosis, and heart complications. (5)

Additionally, the reason why someone is exercising matters, too. Many people struggling with an eating disorder exercise for outcome-related reasons. This means they engage in physical activity to control or lose weight or to compensate for a binge eating episode. A healthier attitude towards exercise involves choosing an activity that you enjoy and doing it for the pleasure you derive from it. 

Myth #8 - Strict diets or eating regimens are not a problem

While a diet like the ketogenic diet may not in and of itself constitute an eating disorder, rigid eating patterns could signify the beginning of an eating disorder or trigger the onset of one. Most disordered eating practices stem from a pattern of restriction, such as a diet or eating regimen. They may not meet the criteria for an eating disorder at first, but that their restricted eating could progress to one.

People with eating disorders commonly cut out entire food groups, such as all sugar, all carbs, or all fats. Manyany fad diets encourage this behavior. And many people who practice strict diets feel severe shame and guilt when they “cheat” and eat forbidden food. These behaviors can be problematic and may lead to eventual health issues or an eating disorder. (1) 

Knowing these myths and speaking out against them can help you educate others and validate people in your life who may be struggling. In turn, more individuals may seek quality eating disorder treatment that can help them heal their relationships with food and movement.

If you are looking for clinically-superior, compassionate care for an eating disorder, Within Health is here for you. We offer virtual care programs tailored to your specific needs. Call our team now to start your healing.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Eating Disorder Myths.
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
  3. Masheb, R., & White, M. A. (2012). Bulimia Nervosa in Overweight and Normal-weight Women. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 53(2), 181–186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2011.03.005
  4. University of Rochester Medical Center. (n.d.). Myths About Eating Disorders.
  5. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (n.d.). Myths About Eating Disorders.

FAQs

Further reading

Thumbnail image of an article

Eating disorders in the military population

Eating disorders affect the military population, due in part to the...
Thumbnail image of an article

How long can the body go without food?

Just how long can the body go without food? And what are the implications...
Thumbnail image of an article

How to tell if you have an eating disorder

Following a balanced way of eating that provides the body with the fuel and...
Thumbnail image of an article

Unpacking the fear of eating in front of others

For many of us, sharing meals with others or going out to eat are the primary ways...
Thumbnail image of an article

The differences between bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa (BN) and anorexia nervosa (AN) are two of the most well-known...
Thumbnail image of an article

Sleep and eating disorders

Sleeping and eating share a very intimate relationship, as they are both essential...
Thumbnail image of an article

How diet culture can lead to eating disorders

From advertisements and food labels to social media and influencers, diet culture is...
Thumbnail image of an article

Comparing bulimia and binge eating disorder

Bulimia nervosa (BN) and binge eating disorder (BED) are two different eating disorders...
Thumbnail image of an article

What causes an eating disorder: A biopsychosocial perspective

Eating disorders are complex and severe psychiatric illnesses that can...
Thumbnail image of an article

Signs a loved one may be at risk of an eating disorder relapse

Recovery is a lifelong process for those who have struggled or...
Thumbnail image of an article

8 eating disorder myths

Many misconceptions about eating disorders are stigmatizing and harmful to those...