The Truth Behind Common Eating Disorder Myths

Despite rising awareness among the general population and health care professionals alike, misconceptions about eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, remain pervasive.
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A recent study revealed that 40 percent of Americans have themselves experienced or know someone who has experienced an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.* Despite rising awareness among the general population and health care professionals alike, misconceptions about these serious diseases, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, remain pervasive.**

Myth: Eating disorders revolve around food.

Truth: Eating disorders are complex illnesses with biological, psychological and sociological underpinnings. While behaviors associated with eating disorders may begin with a fixation on calories and weight, eating disorders generally stem from issues beyond food and body size. They also signify an attempt to control something of substance in an individual's life.

The mistaken belief that eating disorders are about food compels friends and loved ones to encourage individuals to "just eat," when in fact, the disorder from which they're suffering is incredibly complex.

Myth: Eating disorders are an illness of choice.

Truth: Eating disorders are a mental illness, and no one chooses to have an eating disorder. The women, girls, men and boys suffering from eating disorders are generally wonderful people with a horrible illness. They're often the best and the brightest and come from good families that care deeply about their well-being. On the surface, these individuals look like they have everything in the world going for them, and recovering from the disease is far more complicated than simply making healthy lifestyle choices.

Myth: Eating disorders aren't serious illnesses.

Truth: The mortality rates associated with eating disorders are higher than any other mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Anorexia nervosa, which is characterized by refusal to maintain a healthy body weight and an obsessive fear of gaining weight, is the most lethal eating disorder. Half of one percent of patients die every year from anorexia, and it has a mortality rate of 20 percent within 20 years, meaning that one in five people that have had anorexia for two decades will die as a result of the illness.

Even for patients whose eating disorders don't prove fatal, there are often severe medical complications associated with starvation and purging, including bone disease, cardiac complications, gastrointestinal distress, organ failure and infertility.

Myth: Dysfunctional families cause eating disorders.

Truth: While previous models of eating disorders treatment viewed families and dysfunctional dynamics therein as a contributing cause of these illnesses, the community has moved away from the blaming of families toward an understanding that families aren't a cause, but rather an integral part of eating disorders recovery.

While families don't cause eating disorders, these illnesses have been shown to run in families and are as inheritable as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Between 40 and 50 percent of the risk of developing an eating disorder is genetic, and a woman with a mother or sister who has anorexia is 12 times more likely than the general population to develop the disease and four times more likely to develop bulimia nervosa. Those that develop an eating disorder likely had a latent genetic predisposition toward the illness and a precipitating event, such as going on a diet, a traumatic event or significant life change, triggered their anorexia, bulimia or related disorder.

Myth: Eating disorders are a women's illness.

Truth: While eating disorders involve many women's issues and females represent a large part (90 percent) of the affected population, research suggests that male eating disorders now account for at least 10 percent of all cases. Interestingly, despite significant biological, psychological and sociological differences between men and women, the etiology of eating disorders remains fairly constant between the two genders. Like in their female counterparts, eating disorders in men and boys are genetic in nature and are often supported by psychological and sociological pressures such as traditional gender roles and socially accepted ideas about masculinity.

Eating disorder myths can prevent individuals, families and professionals from recognizing these illnesses and seeking appropriate treatment. Education and awareness are the strongest antidotes for misinformation, and promoting a better understanding of eating disorders among the general public and the healthcare community can support early identification, effective intervention and lasting recovery for the men, women and children suffering from eating disorders.

Learn more about eating disorders and debunk eating disorders myths here.

For more by Kenneth L. Weiner, M.D., FAED, CEDS, click here.

For more on eating disorders, click here.

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