The Truth Behind Eating Disorders: Misconception vs. Reality

February 28, 2019

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Cheri Leahy, RDN, CSOWM, and Andrea Cochran, DNP, APRN-C, shared the true severity of the illness. To help break the stigmas surrounding eating disorders, they’ve debunked several unfortunate misconceptions.

Eating disorders aren’t an illness, they’re a choice.

Leahy: Eating disorders can derive from many different factors, including trauma, other clinical illnesses that affect eating patterns, and responses to societal pressures. All of them are unique in nature. Multiple clinical illnesses stem from eating disorders, such as malnutrition, reflux disease and colitis. That’s why I believe an eating disorder is undeniably a medical condition. 

The only type of eating disorder is anorexia nervosa (starvation).

Cochran: There are several other types of eating disorders, including bulimia, which is active binge eating, followed by purging. This is often associated with guilt related to the quantity or type of food eaten. Binge eating is also a disorder in itself. With binge eating, there is an anxiety response that causes food to provide comfort. The person will eat a very large quantity of food in a short period of time, but then will feel physically unwell and also emotionally distraught that they failed their own expectations.

You can only have an eating disorder if you’re “skinny.”

Leahy: Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, just like all of us. Disordered eating patterns may include skipping food all day and overeating all night, only eating in the privacy of our homes and not around others, or only eating takeout food and never cooking. These patterns don’t necessarily result in weight loss. An eating disorder isn’t a diet, it’s a thought process. There is no end result where a person is going to look or feel healthy. As these patterns progress into a severe eating disorder, they need to be addressed and dealt with in a therapeutic manner.

An eating disorder is just a phase, not a serious problem.

Cochran: A true eating disorder is very serious and may have fatal consequences. Eating disorders impact your life physically and emotionally in terms of functioning in a career or having successful relationships. Anything that can be debilitating or result in death cannot be classified as “not a serious problem.” That being said, it can be common in adolescents to see disruption with their eating patterns often caused by issues with self-image. This may transition into a serious eating disorder. People with eating disorders may have periods of remission where they are less symptomatic; however, it is rare that they will ever be “cured.” With help, eating disorders are something that you can learn to successfully manage.

People only develop eating disorders because they want to “look good,” like the people they see in the media.

Cochran: I think we can all identify with wanting to change some physical aspect about ourselves. Being unhappy with the way you look can be a normal emotional expression. People with eating disorders have a chronic inability to see themselves as looking good. When this person looks in the mirror, there is a cognitive distortion. The media provides this unrealistic view of physical perfection, which may worsen self-esteem issues and unrealistic expectations. The media itself, however, did not create the eating disorder. It’s never as simple as “I want to look like a celebrity.” When you have people who start to see themselves in such a physically negative way that it impacts their self-esteem and self-image, it spirals into a place where there can be no release from the view of being “lesser-than.” This is very serious – as serious as depression.

Eating disorders can’t be treated.

Leahy: Unfortunately, I hear this often. There is ALWAYS a treatment plan. Everyone has different barriers to success, but there is a method for each individual person. It might take more time than expected, but once you find the right approach with the help of a professional, the energy of life can flow through the patient again. They function again. They start to hope again.

If your child is showing signs of disordered eating, don’t shy away. If you, yourself, struggle with these symptoms, remember – you are not alone. Resources are always available to help, including the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 800-931-2237.