It's Time to Debunk These 6 Eating Disorder Myths
Despite some major advances culturally, socially and medically, eating disorders are still commonly misunderstood. On top of that, it’s not easy for many with eating disorders to communicate or describe what is and isn’t helpful as they’re trying to navigate the complexity of their illness.
Supporting someone with an eating disorder doesn’t just mean driving them to doctor’s appointments and worrying about what they’re eating. Support also means being an ambassador by squashing misconceptions. If you’re looking for ways to help others understand or simply wanting to gain more insight yourself, here are some myths that need to be debunked:
Myth #1: All eating disorder patients look sick.
This is a major and very dangerous misconception that’s not only perpetuated socially, but also medically. Someone with an eating disorder can get so good at hiding their disordered behaviors that doctors and dentists can miss certain warning signs. This was the case for me — I got the courage to ask for help after about seven years of serious symptoms.
Additionally, not all eating disorders cause extreme changes in weight. People with anorexia or binge eating disorder might exhibit quick and dramatic weight gain or loss, but many eating disorder patients are diagnosed with OSFED, or Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder. This diagnosis includes a wide range of behaviors that don’t necessarily fit into the rigid diagnostic criteria for anorexia or bulimia. In fact, a person may be maintaining their weight but doing so through detrimental compensatory behaviors such as purging or excessive exercise.
Myth #2: The most serious eating disorder is anorexia.
Anorexia is not automatically any more serious than other conditions. Bulimia and other purging behaviors can cause extreme electrolyte imbalances, esophageal tears, anemia, hair loss, slow heart rates and other serious side effects. Over-exercisers can sustain serious injuries, especially if they don’t allow themselves to rest, even when they’re hurt.
And of course, many eating disorder patients often suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Eating disorder patients are often at a higher risk for self-harm and suicidal ideation, as well as death by suicide.
Myth #3: Eating disorder symptoms stay the same through diagnosis and treatment.
Many people with eating disorders experience fluctuations in their behaviors. After months or years of starvation, a person may experience extreme hunger, leading to a period of uncontrollable binging. Similarly, someone who originally restricted caloric intake may begin eating again but begin purging to compensate. Eating disorders are crafty and malleable conditions. The urge to lose or maintain weight can make self-sabotage extremely attractive, even when the patient wants to recover.
Myth #4: If you want to lose weight, you can go on an “eating disorder” diet for a while and then stop.
For most people, extreme calorie restriction, over-exercise or purging is not sustainable. People with eating disorders often don’t have issues with self-control. Eating disorder behaviors are compulsory. Much like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), an eating disorder can cause an irrational and uncontrollable urge to participate in certain rituals, compulsions and behaviors. Extensive therapy and medical intervention may help patients face their fears, address medical needs, and build new skills to combat those compulsions.
In short, eating disorders are not diets. They’re serious, devastating illnesses that aren’t often stopped or started at will.
Myth #5: Eating disorders always go away once you’re “better.”
Recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Weight may be restored, fears may be reduced and tools may be acquired that can help combat disordered thoughts. But these practices of recovery tend to be a continuous journey; recovery doesn’t happen over night.
Myth #6: Eating disorders are so serious that only professionals can help.
Someone with an eating disorder may benefit from guidance from reliable psychiatrists, therapists and/or nutritionists. But that doesn’t mean that friends and family are unable to support someone through treatment and recovery.
In my opinion, questions are helpful and very welcome:
“Do you have known triggers that I can help you avoid?”
“Do you need a bathroom buddy?”
“Will you be able to enjoy this event or holiday if we make adjustments to make you more comfortable?”
“How are you feeling right now?”
And remember: if you’re supporting someone through treatment or recovery, any slip ups on their part are not a poor reflection on you. Relapses are common. The journey to wellness is not linear. Your job isn’t to take pride or responsibility in the their recovery. Your job is to be available, to provide unconditional love and to let them know they are not alone in this battle.
Unsplash via Joshua Rawson-Harris