Despite how widespread eating disorders are, many, many misconceptions remain about these illnesses and the people affected by them. These misconceptions are hosted and maintained by a variety of sources including the popular media, opinions of people around you, outdated information online and in textbooks, and by stigma that prevents open and honest conversations that could lead to greater understanding on a more personal level. As a society, it’s important that we move past the stereotypical thinking, not just about eating disorders but about eating and health in general so that we can shift towards non-judgmental attitudes and practices that truly promote well-being. After my time as a Community Outreach intern at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, these are the five most surprising facts I thought would be important for my peers and the community to know.
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1. Anorexia and bulimia are not the only eating disorders, nor are they the most prevalent. There are more than just the eating disorders that we hear about through the media. Binge eating disorder, atypical anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa of a low frequency and/or limited duration, and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) are just a few examples. Some of these diagnoses fall within the category of Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED), but it is also possible to have an Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder. In all of these cases though, eating disorders can take a significant toll on a person’s health and quality of life. It seems the lack of awareness, the sensitivity of these disorders, and the confusing nature of diagnosis for eating disorders have all contributed to the fact that only 1 in 10 people with an eating disorder will get treatment. This is a sobering statistic given that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and are rarely resolved without professional help. Raising awareness of all the different types of eating disorders and wide variety of symptoms might make it a little easier for individuals who are struggling to see themselves represented and to seek help.
2. Up to 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from eating disorders. It is true that adolescent females make up a large part of the treatment seeking population, but it’s important to note the role that bias and misinformation, even among medical professionals, can play here. If a person is struggling with an eating disorder and they fall outside of the white, adolescent female stereotype, they are actually less likely to be screened for, correctly diagnosed with, or referred to specialized treatment for an eating disorder. The truth is that eating disorders do not discriminate; people of any race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status may be affected. These illnesses affect men, women, children, and the elderly. It’s important that health and mental health professionals know this and don’t overlook warning signs in their patients.
3. There is no such thing as a “bad food.” Most of us learn throughout our lifetimes that certain foods are “bad” and others are “good” based on any number of analyses – fat content, calories, food group, process by which it was made, etc. These messages reach us through social pressures, peer groups, family attitudes, commercials, magazines, and just about everywhere we look online. When we’re surrounded by these messages, it is easy to forget that food is just food and gives us energy and can be enjoyed– it doesn’t have to be assigned a moral value. Despite what we are told by the healthy lifestyle bloggers, it is okay, even necessary, to eat bread and pasta. It is okay to get ice cream that isn’t sugar free and to go for the full fat lattes. None of these things influence our self-worth or intrinsic goodness. Disordered thoughts about food are everywhere and will likely continue to be everywhere. Take away the “good” and “bad” labels from the food and you’re one step closer to creating a healthy attitude toward food whether you’re working on recovery from an eating disorder or not.
4. Fat talk is harmful for everyone. Body dissatisfaction can be a significant risk factor for the development of eating disorders. Negative thoughts about one’s body are not easily extinguished and most people with eating disorders continue to struggle with these thoughts during their recovery process. Talking about diets, comparing body sizes, complimenting weight loss, or just generally talking negatively about body shape or weight can be very triggering and can even contribute to relapse. But it’s not just people with eating disorders who are harmed by fat talk. Whether it is self-directed or directed at a friend or a stranger, focusing on weight/size as a measure of worth or beauty brings everyone down. It probably seems completely normal for someone to say “you look great, have you lost weight?” or for a co-worker to mention she’s not eating carbs because she’s afraid it will make her fat. But it doesn’t have to be normal. When fat talk happens, consider how you might turn it around to be positive and helpful instead of feeding into the negativity. Could you change the subject completely, educate your friend about the dangers of fat talk, or simply model mindful eating behaviors? You can also remind your friends of all the reasons why you care about them that have nothing to do with what size they wear.
5. You really can’t tell whether or not someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them. People with eating disorders look very much like everyone else – completely diverse. As stated earlier, this includes diversity in age, gender and race but also diversity in weight and size. The phrase, “you don’t look like you have an eating disorder” is not only misleading but also can be extremely detrimental to individuals seeking support. Eating disorders can affect low weight, average weight, and high weight individuals. Unfortunately, many people delay seeking treatment based on an assumption that their health is not at risk unless they are drastically under or overweight. In general, weight is a very poor predictor of one’s current health. If you are engaging in disordered eating behaviors and experience frequent negative thoughts about your body, it doesn’t matter what size you are, your health is at risk and you deserve support and treatment.
For more information about different types of eating disorders and treatment visit eatingdisorder.org.
If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, you can take the confidential online self-assessment to find out more.