Eating disorders are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. They are all consuming, creating a lonely and confusing existence where you rarely, if ever, feel at ease. Having an eating disorder is like having an internal bully, a constant, controlling companion. One who watches you, manipulates you, and regulates every aspect of your life. It tells you you’re not good enough, people don’t like you, and that the only way you will be worthy is to listen to its abusive messages.
According to eating disorder charity, Beat, a staggering 1 in 50 people live with an eating disorder, so it’s likely we all know someone who is suffering in this way.
Living with an eating disorder is indescribably hard, but what makes it even tougher are the misconceptions surrounding these illnesses. These areas of misunderstanding are damaging and only serve to perpetuate the already deep felt feelings of shame experienced by sufferers. These myths can prevent people from reaching out for the help they desperately need and throw them off-course throughout their recovery.
So today, I want to shine a light on some of the major misconceptions associated with eating disorders to help dispel these myths and encourage greater awareness and understanding. Let’s tackle the taboo around these serious mental health illnesses and get the conversation flowing.
1. Anorexia is the most common eating disorder
Nope! Anorexia is an incredibly serious mental illness with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder in adolescence. However, bulimia nervosa is the most common eating disorder, affecting 40% of people who suffer with an eating disorder, compared with anorexia, affecting 10% of those suffering with one .
2. It’s a choice
False! This is the one that really upsets me. If people only knew how horrific these illnesses are, they would understand that nobody would choose to suffer like this. People need to recognise that the causes are complex, and are most often a combination of biological, societal and environmental factors.
People’s genes can contribute to the risk of developing an eating disorder, certain events such as early childhood abuse or bullying can serve as contributing factors, while some might begin on a journey to improve their health, only for it to spiral uncontrollably into an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are not a choice, they are serious and complex mental health disorders.
3. Eating disorders are not that serious
- Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
- Without treatment, up to 20% of people with serious eating disorders die.
- Anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric illness (including major depression) .
Eating disorders can cause low blood pressure, a weak pulse, dental problems, low levels of testosterone, absent periods, infertility, loss of electrolytes, an irregular heartbeat and heart failure. Now, try telling me eating disorders are not that serious.
4. Normal weight people don’t have eating disorders
Wrong! Anorexia is associated with being underweight, but most people who struggle with eating disorders are a normal weight.
While you can battle with both anorexia and bulimia at the same time, remember that bulimia and binge eating disorder are far more common. People struggling with these illnesses are likely to be normal weight. There is no way you can tell by just ‘looking’ if somebody has a serious eating disorder. What unites people with eating disorders is an over-evaluation of weight and shape on their evaluation self-worth.
5. It’s about vanity and being thin
Wrong again! Eating disorders are not about vanity. They serve different functions for different people, but for an overwhelming number of sufferers, they are about control and self-worth. The eating disorder voice can make you believe that your only way of being worthy is to control your weight. These thoughts can become a constant and uninterrupted internal dialogue.
An eating disorder can also be a way of managing emotional distress and regulating strong feelings. Starving, bingeing and vomiting start out as ways for the sufferer to avoid focussing on strong and complex emotions, such as fear, sadness, and anger. A key part of recovery is learning other ways to notice, experience, regulate and cope with distress.
6. It’s a girl thing
You guessed it, this is also untrue! Eating disorders do often affect women, but they do not discriminate. Anybody can be affected by an eating disorder, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, weight or socioeconomic status.
Due to the increased stigma surrounding men and eating disorders, many men will sadly go undiagnosed, or will only reach diagnosis once their illness is completely entrenched. Only through education, greater awareness and understanding will we change this.
It’s so important we continue the conversation about eating disorders to help erode the misconceptions that surround them. As I’ve said, eating disorders are serious and complex mental health illnesses, which 1 in 50 of us suffer from, and without proper diagnosis and treatment, can be fatal.
The UK Eating Disorders Awareness Week takes place from 1-7th of March this year. We’ll soon be launching a campaign to support this event, look out for our information about that, coming soon.
Our licensed therapists are specialists in the treatment of eating disorders, so if you or someone you know is suffering with one, please visit this page to book a free consultation to discuss how we can help.