7 Common Misconceptions About Eating Disorders, And The Truth About How They Actually Work

It’s the first day of February, which is National Eating Disorders Awareness Month. As an eating disorder survivor, I am keenly aware of the harmfulmisconceptions people hold about such disorders and how they can affect their victims. Throughout the years that I suffered from anorexia, I was told that I was selfish, that I was stupid, that I didn’t have an eating disorder, that my unhealthy body looked great, and everything in between. It’s very common for those who have suffered from an eating disorder to hear things from others that hinder recovery and exacerbate the illnesses — and these comments can do an incredible amount of harm.

When I first developed an eating disorder in my early teens, I sincerely thought I was just being health-conscious. I had heard and read nutritional advice that made food restriction sound healthy, even for a thin person. After I lost a medically dangerous amount of weight, my parents started taking me to specialists who tried to get me to eat more and gain weight — and I realized I couldn’t. I had become addicted. Thus ensued two more years of starving, purging, and everything in the book that could help me resist the dietary regimes my parents, therapists, and doctors tried to impose on me.

All this is scary to relate because I can already hear the common responses I get. “What made you do that?” “You know men don’t like stick figures.” “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.” Before you ever say any of these things again, please ask yourself whether you are speaking out of these misconceptions about eating disorders, and consider what they’re actually like.

1. MYTH: Anorexia And Bulimia Are The Only Eating Disorders

The eating disorders most commonly portrayed in the media are anorexia nervosa, which involves restricting food intake to lose dangerous amounts of weight, and bulimia nervosa, which involves binging and then purging through self-induced vomiting, fasting, exercising, or a number of different methods. In reality, the most common eating disorder is Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), recently renamed to Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED).

People with this disorder often have some symptoms of anorexia or bulimia, but not all of them. Or they may have different food- or weight-related problems entirely. Don’t assume that the nebulous label makes the disorder less serious; some studies have found EDNOS/OSFED to be the most life-threatening eating disorder there is.

Another eating disorder that’s talked about less often is Binge Eating Disorder, which affects 3.5 percent of women and two percent of men in the United States. It involves periodic out-of-control binges followed by feelings of guilt and shame.

2. MYTH: If You Don’t Have An Eating Disorder, Your Eating Is Not Disordered

About 30 million people in the United States experience eating disorders at some point in their lives, but even more experience disordered eating, which is defined as “a wide range of abnormal eating behaviors, many of which are shared with diagnosed eating disorders.” “Abnormal” is a bit of a misnomer, however, because our society normalizes disordered eating habits like dieting and binging. In fact, over half of teenage girls have engaged in behaviors symptomatic of eating disorders, including skipping meals, using laxatives, or intentionally vomiting. And almost half of British women feel guilty after eating carbs, according to a survey by XLS-Medical Carb Blocker. Disordered eating may be defined as “abnormal,” but as body image activist Melissa Fabello points out, it’s the norm in our society.

If you make dietary choices based on a preordained set of rules rather than the messages your body is sending, Fabello explains, that is disordered. According to Kelsey Miller, author of Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life, having moral feelings like guilt about food (with the exception of vegetarianism or religious dietary restrictions) is also disordered. In short, eating based on anything other than what your body says it needs is disordered. Body acceptance, intuitive eating, and other goals of people in eating disorder recovery are actually areas where many people without eating disorders could improve as well.

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