When I ask my friends if they’ve ever know anyone with an eating disorder, a typical response is “No, I don’t think so.” I’m going to make an educated guess that yes, they have had friends with eating disorders. Eating disorders are secretive, and they can affect people of all shapes and sizes. It’s hard for many out there to seek treatment when there are dangerous myths running rampant out there. Here are 4 common myths about eating disorders:
“It’s all about wanting to be thin.”
This is one of the most frustrating myths out there. Yes, people with eating disorders often have poor body image, but that’s not why they have an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are a coping mechanism. Some people use food to cope by binging, purging, or restricting. Others use alcohol, drugs, sex, or other ways to avoid feeling often very painful emotions or dealing with trauma. If someone has an eating disorder, it’s working for them in some way. It’s helping them manage all the crazy stresses and painful emotions in their life. We all have some stress in our lives, but everyone deals with it in their own way.
The beauty is during recovery, you can learn new coping mechanisms and ways to manage your stress rather than feed your eating disorder. Learning to feel all your emotions - even the painful ones - is hard. It's uncomfortable, and you shouldn't have to do it alone. Working with healthcare professionals can help you feel your emotions and re-frame your negative thoughts to see your thoughts, feelings, and your body in a new perspective.
“Eating disorders only affect thin, white, rich females.”
No, no, no! You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by their appearance. Men and women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and socioeconomic background can suffer from eating disorders. Eating disorders are not simply a mental health problem. They can have a genetic and biological component, and there's often nutrient deficiencies involved. If you are lacking in certain nutrients, such as zinc or Vitamin B12, mental health symptoms may arise. Eating disorders are likely a mixture of all these parts, and it depends on the individual too.
If you’ve ever lost weight, you probably received positive comments from friends, family, or your doctor, regardless of if you lost the weight slowly or with a quick fix. These compliments can be extremely motivating to keep going, even if you're losing weight through an unhealthy method like extreme food restriction, excessive exercise, or purging. People who are overweight or obese are often put on very low-calorie diets that are lacking in essential nutrients by health professionals, or are praised for following plans that would be labeled as unhealthy for someone of a normal or low weight. This double standard has to stop. Dieting is not the way to lose weight or get healthy, regardless of the number on the scale.
Weight loss should not be the focus. You can be healthy and overweight, and the goal should be to GAIN health rather than lose weight. Health professionals should be familiar with HAES – Health at Every Size Movement. Using mindful or intuitive eating approaches focus on health rather than weight loss, and people do often lose weight without trying to. The best part is they are building sustainable habits and taking a health-first approach.
While it was once thought to only affect women, men do struggle with eating disorders. Luckily, more men are seeking help for eating disorders. They may hide in shame with thoughts that “it’s a women’s disease,” and not seek help, though. When we realize that eating disorders can affect anyone, more people will be able to get the help they need.
“Eating disorders are a choice. You can stop anytime.”
Eating disorders are not a choice. No one wants to have an eating disorder and be bogged down with thoughts in their head and counting every single calorie every day.
If it were as easy as just stopping one day, people would not be spending years and thousands of dollars on eating disorder facilities, therapists, and recovery.
Eating disorders are complex, and there are many different factors that can lead to one. Although it may start out innocently, and someone may think that they can stop restricting after they lose 10 pounds for prom, it can quickly spiral out of control, especially if there is a genetic predisposition. When your brain is starved for nutrients and energy, you can't think straight or make rational decisions. If you restrict yourself and ignore your body's natural hunger signals, or eat past the point of fullness to feeling sick, you won't be able to hear your body's cues for hunger and fullness.
As you recover, you can make day-to-day, moment-to-moment choices to nourish yourself, though. You can choose to eat lunch when you're hungry, even if it's 10 am. You can make the choice to enjoy a piece of chocolate or two or three, everyday if you want. You can make the choice to go for a run if that feels good, or to take a rest day and sit on the couch watching Netflix all day if you want. You can choose to stop, take a breath, and ask yourself what you need when you're stressed out rather than binging on candy. You may find that you can enjoy a piece of chocolate, or you may find that you need to take a short walk outside instead to feel refreshed. It's daily choices.
“You can never recover from an eating disorder.”
Do you think someone who finally decides to seek help wants to hear this?
Yes, eating disorders take a LOT of work, time, and commitment to recover from, but I truly believe you can recover from an eating disorder. It may still be a daily struggle for years, but with the support from a therapist, physician, dietitian, family, friends, and everyone else who loves you in your life, you can recover.
Research shows that with treatment, 60% of people can recover fully. The key is seeking help, or getting someone you know help early on. If you are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, tell someone you trust, and seek help. This can be the hardest part, but you’re worth it.
If you know someone who may be struggling with an eating disorder, talk to them about it. Eating disorders are secretive, and no one is going to exclaim to the office that they just threw up their lunch. Yes, they may get upset or not want to talk to you about it, but keep trying. They are worth it.
It takes courage and a lot of self-love to realize that you do not want to live in fear and with a constant overwhelming stream of negative thoughts in your head. Just know that you are loved, and by recognizing there's a problem, you've made the first step. Baby steps is all that is needed.
Please share this with someone you know to help spread the awareness for National Eating Disorder Awareness week!