Eating disorder myth #1 – You can tell someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them
Thanks to inaccurate media portrayals, a common myth about eating disorders is that everyone who struggles with an eating disorder must be thin. But the reality is, many people with these conditions 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 with being very thin. And while AN often leads to severe weight loss, individuals who have anorexia nervosa can be within “normal” weight range, or even in a larger body. When this occurs, the condition is referred to as “atypical” anorexia.2
Likewise, many people with bulimia nervosa—which is characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors like vomiting or purging—are “normal” weight or “overweight.”3 This is sometimes connected to atypical bulimia nervosa, which happens when a person does not show as much concern around body size or shape or does not partake in disordered eating episodes as frequently as those with BN.
This eating disorder myth is particularly harmful to people in larger bodies, as it can be more difficult for others, including doctors, to see or believe that they are struggling with this mental illness. 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.
Common eating disorder myth #2 – Only teen girls or young white women get eating disorders
The common eating disorder myth that the conditions only or primarily affect younger white women may be related more to how eating disorders have been traditionally studied, as opposed to biological reality.
This myth has roots in which groups of people participate in eating disorder studies. Generally, eating disorder researchers have focused nearly exclusively on the experiences of white girls and women, with patients from ethnic minorities represented only by small sample sizes.6 Similar issues have occurred around older patients. (7) The resulting findings can be inherently skewed, making it appear that more young, white women struggle with eating disorders, when they simply represent the majority of patients participating in a given study.
In fact, eating disorders affect people of all different ages, from children to older adults. And more inclusive studies have found little-to-no difference in the rate of disordered eating across different ethnicities.6,7 Eating disorders also affect people of all genders, including cis men, trans men, trans women, and gender diverse and non-binary individuals.
Because of this harmful myth, many people do not get the treatment they need, but being aware of this myth can help treatment providers and medical professionals provide more inclusive care.1
Eating disorder myth #3 – Eating disorders only occur in adolescence
Although many eating disorders develop during adolescence, they are not exclusive to people in this phase of life, nor are they "a phase" in and of themselves, which will naturally resolve once a person reaches adulthood.
Treating an eating disorder like a phase overlooks the severity of these mental illnesses and their harmful, often long-term effects. Some studies have found that women as old as 70 still struggle with the type of body dissatisfaction that can lead to disordered eating behaviors.7
Getting specialized treatment can help individuals with eating disorders to recover much more successfully than waiting for the disordered eating behaviors to disappear.4
Common misconception about eating disorders #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.8 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
Common myth about eating disorders #5 – Eating disorders are just a way to get attention
This common misconception about eating disorders goes hand in hand with the previous one. Just as eating disorders are not a choice, they are also not a play for attention.
This eating disorder 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.
Eating disorder myth #6 – Parents are the cause of an eating disorder in their child
Eating disorders are not a choice, not a play for attention, and they are not the fault of someone's parents. These conditions manifest from a complex combination of genetic, social, and emotional factors.
Sadly, this myth about eating disorders leads many parents to blame themselves for their child’s condition. 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, which can further complicate family dynamics.
Still, the way parents talk about their own weight, eating, and exercise habits may have some effect on their child, so it’s important to set a positive example and to model a healthy relationship with food and body image. Parents can also play a healing and healthy role in eating disorder recovery for their child.4
Myth about eating disorders #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 fatigue and injury, as well as other negative effects like mood swings, depression, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.5
Myth about eating disorders #8 – Strict diets or eating regimens are not a problem
Following a diet is not the same thing as having an eating disorder, but research has long connected the two, finding that the rigid rules and patterns around eating could trigger the onset of an eating disorder or lead to further disordered eating behaviors.9 That diets will not lead to such issues is an eating disorder myth.
Most disordered eating practices stem from a pattern of restriction. People with eating disorders commonly cut out entire food groups or skip meals as part of their disorder. Even many people with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder experience binging episodes after periods of restriction.9
Many fad diets also 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.9
Finding help for an eating disorder
If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, it's important to seek out help. Contrary to the common misconceptions about eating disorders, these conditions are not a phase and, unfortunately, they often get worse with time if left untreated.
Knowing these myths about eating disorders 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.