Eating disorders affect approximately 1.25 million people in the UK.* This high prevalence means that most people know or know of someone affected by disordered eating, whether that be anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder) or others.
However, this awareness can allow misinformation to spread like wildfire and many people hold harmful misconceptions and opinions about these conditions and those affected. Stigma and misunderstanding can fuel discrimination and decrease help seeking, which can in turn exacerbate symptoms and hinder recovery.
Here are 5 common myths surrounding eating disorders and the evidence dispelling them:
Myth 1: Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the only/most common eating disorders
Although more well-known, anorexia and bulimia are not the most common eating disorders. Research conducted in 2015 by Hay and Colleagues revealed that the most prevalent eating disorder in the UK was OSFED, which accounted for 47% of cases. The following most common eating disorders were binge eating disorder (22%), bulimia (19%) and anorexia (8%).
Myth 2: People with eating disorders are just seeking attention
Some people believe those experiencing eating disorders are choosing to behave in damaging ways just to be dramatic or gain attention. In reality, many disordered eating habits take place in private. The affected person often goes to great lengths to hide their condition so as not to provoke worry, intervention or anger.
Eating disorders are not a choice; they are complex disorders which involve biological, social and environmental factors and compulsions which can be very difficult to control.
Myth 3: Eating disorders aren’t serious
There is a misconception that people with eating disorders don’t have a real condition or problem and that there are more serious issues to worry about. However, eating disorders are anything but trivial; in fact, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.*
Eating disorders can also fuel other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, and are real conditions that deserve to be taken seriously and treated with respect.
Myth 4: Eating disorders only affect white, middle-class, teenage girls
Although eating disorders more commonly affect adolescent girls, eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, socio-economic background, ethnicity or sexuality. Eating disorders have been diagnosed in children as young as 6 and adults in their 70s. Men account for approximately 25% of people diagnosed with eating disorders.
Myth 5: Eating disorders are always visible
There is a common stereotype of what a person with a mental illness looks like. Along with the assumed demographics mentioned above, people often imagine someone very thin and visibly ill. However, as aforementioned, anorexia accounts for approximately 8% of eating disorder diagnoses, and many people with disordered eating conditions demonstrate weight stability or gain rather than just extreme weight loss.
Even amongst those with severe anorexia, not everyone is visibly thin. If someone developed an eating disorder when they were considerably overweight, they wouldn’t become skeletal overnight. Furthermore, weight can often fluctuate, and it isn’t necessarily an accurate indicator of mental wellbeing and functioning.
Eating disorders can affect anyone of any shape or size, and from any demographic background or home environment. They are complex disorders that require understanding, awareness and care. A recovery journey is possible for anyone and it is vital to get support as quickly as you can if you believe you are struggling with your body image or eating habits.
If you think you may have an eating disorder: make an appointment with your GP as soon as you can.
Dorset Mind’s ‘Restored’ Eating Disorder Service believes that change is possible. The charity will empower and support your journey towards recovery from disordered eating. The charity delivers a weekly support group, mentoring and counselling across Dorset; and additional resources and information. You can self-refer by email to email@example.com
Find out more online at: https://dorsetmind.uk/help-and-support/support-groups/restored-eating-disorders/
*Statistics from BEAT Eating Disorders (2018)