- Eating disorders are commonly misunderstood mental illnesses.
- People may either not acknowledge their eating disorder symptoms, or may be aware of them but go to great lengths to mask the behaviour.
- There is considerable stigma surrounding eating disorders due to misinformation about the condition. People experiencing an eating disorder may be reluctant to seek help.
An eating disorder is a mental health condition that can cause a person to be overly concerned with food intake and body image, thereby affecting their wellbeing and physical health. Eating disorders are prevalent in our society, yet are often poorly understood and can be difficult to detect and diagnose.
People with eating disorders may be unaware of their condition and the harm it causes them — or they may be aware of it and try to hide the behaviour. For this reason (and many others) there is considerable stigma surrounding eating disorders.
Here are five eating disorder myths and facts.
Eating disorder myth: You can tell when someone has an eating disorder
Fact: Eating disorders are complicated conditions which are difficult to diagnose. The fact that someone does not have visible physical symptoms does not mean they are not experiencing the ill effects of an eating disorder.
A person with an eating disorder may not be aware of their condition. If they are aware, they may try to hide it by skipping meals, binge eating in private, or by other means.
Due to the significant stigma and misinformation about eating disorders, people who do recognise their condition may be reluctant to get help.
Eating disorder myth: An eating disorder is a lifestyle choice
Fact: An eating disorder is a serious mental health condition which can seriously affect health and wellbeing or even be life-threatening.
As mentioned, people living with an eating disorder are often stigmatised. Common beliefs may include that an eating disorder is an attempt to get attention, that constant dieting is a normal part of life, that it’s merely a “phase” or that it’s something someone could “snap out of”. These beliefs are harmful and can compound a person’s distress.
Eating disorder myth: Only women have eating disorders
Despite the prevalence of eating disorders among females, eating disorders can affect men and boys too. Stigma, a reluctance to seek help (men are less likely to seek help for a mental health condition than women), poor understanding of the disorders by health professionals, or a combination of these can compound the harm.
Men who identify as gay or bisexual are at higher risk of experiencing an eating disorder, as are men who work in professions where physical appearance is important, such as acting or professional sports.
Unhealthy behaviour associated with eating disorders in males can manifest as a strong preoccupation with an ‘ideal’ body image, unhealthy food intake and dieting regimes, dangerous or extreme amounts of exercise and anabolic steroid use.
Eating disorder myth: Anorexia is the only eating disorder
Fact: There are several different classifications of eating disorders. The most commonly diagnosed types of eating disorders are:
- Anorexia Nervosa: characterised by significant loss of body fat, excessive concern with being ‘fat’ and a preoccupation with exercise and avoiding food. This occurs despite the intense sensation of hunger.
- Bulimia Nervosa: characterised by binge eating and purging. The person may feel like they have no control over their eating and may subsequently feel guilt and other negative emotions. This may lead to ‘purging’ via vomiting, intense exercise, laxatives or other means.
- Binge Eating Disorder: is a more recently diagnosed condition where the person engages in binge eating episodes. During this time they feel they have no control over their actions, however, there is no subsequent purging.
- Other recognised eating disorders: include Pica, Rumination Disorder, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED).
Eating disorder myth: You can’t change an eating disorder
Fact: Eating disorders can be managed and treated like any other mental health disorder.
Early intervention is especially important. A long time can elapse from the beginning of the disordered behaviour and treatment taking effect — up to four years (and up to 10 in some cases). It’s therefore important to recognise and address an eating disorder as early as possible.
Eating disorders are commonly associated with other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Indeed, as with any mental health disorder, there will often be underlying causes that could range from abuse to bullying. This is one reason why relapse and recurrence are a common part of recovering from an eating disorder.
The best way to help someone with an eating disorder is to show support and encouragement. Admittedly, for the person showing support this can feel difficult, if not outright frustrating, if it involves helping someone who does not acknowledge their condition.
Nonetheless, shaming or humiliating them for “falling off the wagon” or being “in denial” is usually unhelpful and likely to compound the harm. For this reason, a discussion with a GP or health professional is a good place to start when dealing with an eating disorder.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.