When it comes to eating disorders, there are a lot of common misconceptions held both by the public and health professionals. The problem with these myths as they generally lead to people downplaying their difficulties and are a barrier to people getting the treatment and support that they need. Below is a breakdown of a few (by no means all!) of the common beliefs about eating disorders and the facts around them.
You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder.
It is a very common misconception and stereotype that you have to be considerably underweight to be considered “sick enough” to receive treatment for an eating disorder. This, however, is not true. People at any size and shape can have disordered eating or meet criteria for an eating disorder. Further to this, any individual irrespective of whether their weight is in the underweight, healthy, or overweight categories can be experiencing significant physical health complications as a result of their disordered eating.
Along with this, physical health complications are not the only damaging element to an eating disorder. Often it is the psychological effects that can be really damaging. Some of these impacts include constant rumination on food, withdrawal and isolation, depression, anxiety, obsessive body checking, drive to exercise etc.
Eating disorders are just about vanity, food, weight, and concerns about body shape.
Even though eating disorders present as simply being disorders in eating habits (e.g., restricting food, compensating for food eaten), there can be many purposes that these behaviours can serve for someone. For example, strive for perfection, giving the individual a sense of control in their life that they do not have elsewhere, a coping strategy for stressors in their life, trying to feel worthwhile, response to trauma, helping with emotion regulation etc.
Only females get eating disorders.
While research has shown that eating disorders are more common in females, males can still experience an eating disorder as well as disordered eating or body image concerns. This myth also means that eating disorders are often missed in males which lead to them not seeking treatment. Due to this, there is likely a misrepresentation of the prevalence of eating disorders in males.
If I am not underweight, then I am not sick, and do not need or deserve help.
It is a common belief that only people who are underweight are at risk of physical health complications from their disordered eating. This is not the case. Even those within the healthy and overweight categories are at risk of physical complications such as weakened heart muscle and electrolyte imbalances that could result in permanent damage or death.
Further to this, as described above, disordered eating does not only impact on physical health, there is also an impact on your psychological and emotional wellbeing. Even if people who have disordered eating are not seeing an impact on their physical health, it is still vital to get help and support because of this.
I am just a healthy eater so do not have an eating disorder.
There is a big push these days for healthy eating and regular exercise, and it is good to incorporate these into your lifestyle. However, healthy eating and exercise can also become disordered. This occurs when the behaviour starts to have a negative impact on the individual’s life, is distressing, or becomes obsessive. For example, stopping going out with friends due to wanting to eat “healthily” or “clean”, becoming distressed or skipping meals when healthy food is not available, eliminating necessary food groups (e.g., carbs), decline in work or school performance, withdrawing from family and friends etc.
A lot of eating disorders develop out of trying to eat healthy and make small lifestyle changes. Dieting is one of the strongest risk factors for developing an eating disorder.
They do not meet diagnostic criteria; therefore they do not need support.
Anyone who is experiencing a negative impact on their life or distress from their eating habits is able to and should access support around this.
This is just a quick overview of some of the myths surrounding eating disorders and disordered eating in the community, but there are many more! If you resonated with any of the above, or think you need support around your eating, please do not hesitate to reach out 😊