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8 Common Myths about Eating Disorders

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There are a number of myths about eating disorders circulating within our culture that many people consider as facts.

Maggie Baumann, MA: Working in the eating disorder treatment field, I spend a lot of time educating others about eating disorders -- not only those struggling with the disorder, but also their loved ones. I spend time promoting awareness about eating disorders to the general public as well.

I'd like to introduce eight of the most common myths that people come across and dispute these myths with the truth:

8 Myths about Eating Disorders

Myth #1

Eating disorders are a choice.

People do not choose to have eating disorders. They develop over time and require appropriate treatment to address the complex medical/psychiatric symptoms and underlying issues.

Myth #2

Eating disorders are about appearance and beauty.

Eating disorders are complex medical/psychiatric illnesses and have little to do with food, eating, appearance, or beauty. This is indicated by the continuation of the illness long after a person has reached his/her initial "target" weight. Eating disorders are usually related to emotional issues, such as control and low self-esteem, and often exist as part of a "dual" diagnosis of major depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Myth #3

A person who "always eats" does not have an eating disorder.

A person practicing an eating disorder may only play with their food, making it appear as though they have eaten a meal. They may eat at such a slow rate that they consume a few calories. They may even eat large amounts of food, but of insufficient variety to offer proper nutrition. They may also secretly purge the food they have eaten.

Myth #4

You can tell if a person has an eating disorder simply by appearance.

You can't. Anorexia may be easier to detect visually. Bulimia is harder to "see" because individuals often have normal weight or may be overweight. Some people may show obvious signs, such as sudden weight loss or gain, while others may not. People with an eating disorder can become very effective at hiding the signs and symptoms. Thus, eating disorders can be undetected for months, years, or a lifetime.

Myth #5

Purging is only throwing up.

The definition of purging is to evacuate the contents of the stomach or bowels by any of several means. In bulimia, purging is used to compensate for excessive food intake. Methods of purging include vomiting, enemas and laxative abuse, insulin abuse, fasting, and excessive exercise. Any of these behaviors can be dangerous and lead to serious medical emergencies or death. Purging by throwing up also can affect the teeth and esophagus because of the acidity of purged contents.

Myth #6

Laxatives are an effective way to prevent the absorption of calories.

The use/abuse of laxatives only depletes the body's store of fluids. Laxatives react with the colon, where no absorption of calories takes place. Laxative abuse can lead to extreme dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and additional medical complications up to and including the need for a colostomy.

Myth #7

Achieving normal weight means that anorexia is cured.

Weight recovery is essential to enabling a person with anorexia to participate in a meaningful way in further treatment, such as psychological therapy. Recovering to normal weight does not in and of itself signify a cure, because eating disorders are complex medical/psychiatric illnesses.

Myth #8

You're not sick until you're emaciated.

Only a small percentage of people with eating disorders reach the state of emaciation often portrayed in the media. The common belief that a person is only truly ill if he/she becomes abnormally thin compounds the affected individual's perceptions of body image and not being "good" at being "sick enough." This can interfere with treatment, and can trigger intensification of self-destructive eating disorder behaviors.

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4 comments so far | Post a comment now
Absolute October 1, 2009, 10:00 PM

I would have like to have seen compulsive overeating addressed in this article about eating disorders.

Maggie Baumann October 1, 2009, 10:58 PM

Great point Absolute … eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating (compulsive overeating). Perhaps I’ll post in the future something specific to binge eating. It’s also important to note that someone with anorexia can move into bulimia, or vice-versa. And anorexics and bulimics can move back and forth into binge eating.

Eating disorders are on a continuum, from anorexia to bulimia to binge eating. People can float from one side to the next. It doesn’t really matter what disorder is specified. The emotional issues underneath the disorders are generally the same, from depression, trauma to low self esteem.

Sarah, Sayhealth October 2, 2009, 5:03 AM

This gives a lot of good information. However, I agree that COE/BED should have been included. Also, I thought it was counter-productive to say that eating disorders are not necessarily visible and not everyone is emaciated, yet the article started with two pictures portraying otherwise. Also, as someone recovering from an e.d., those pictures were harmful and triggering, as was the weight loss ad in the middle of this!

Jen October 2, 2009, 3:58 PM

That picture is ME, and this is the SECOND TIME this site has used it. After the FIRST time I wrote you an email of complaint for using my picture without permission - I OBJECT to having it stuck here without me knowing so that all sorts of idiots who know nothing about eating disorders can rant away at my parents, say I’m on drugs, all the rest of it - and that email recieved no response, thank you SO much for your fantistic manners there. And now you’ve gone and used it again.

I daresay this comment will not show up either or will be deleted. This site utterly revolts me. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have, but PLEASE can the maintainers of this site take my wishes into account and NOT use my picture without warning me first!

Looking at that picture it’s entirely possible that the girl in it could be DEAD now, and how do you think her parents would feel seeing it splashed round the internet?! Seriously guys, THINK first!

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