The Truth Behind Eating Disorders
By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer
Eating disorders are serious, complex mental illnesses that can be baffling and confusing, even for professionals. It does not help that many myths or misconceptions surround eating disorders, which interfere with the detection, prevention, and treatment of eating disorders. By debunking these myths, more people will be able to identify eating disorders and treat them.
Perhaps the most significant truth about eating disorders is that you can not tell if someone has an eating disorder or what type of eating disorder they have based on their appearance. Often, people and the media tend to associate eating disorders solely with anorexia or people who appear emaciated; however, there are many other types of eating disorders, all of which are present among all BMI categories. The Center for Discovery, an eating disorder treatment center, states, “Approximately 65% of individuals with bulimia nervosa have ‘normal’ body weight or are considered overweight. Additionally, binge-eating disorder, orthorexia, compulsive overeating, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) do not have body types or weight restrictions included in the diagnosis.”
I suffered from a restrictive eating disorder, and while I had significant weight loss, my weight and appearance would be considered “normal”. Initially, I did not even recognize I had an eating disorder because I thought that people with eating disorders have to be extremely skinny or extremely overweight when in reality, eating disorders are more characterized by behaviors and mentality. The danger in this common misconception is that people in need will be unable to recognize their disorder, and by the time they do, a substantial amount of damage would have occurred, causing a lengthier and tougher recovery.
Another common misconception is that eating disorders are all about food. While many behaviors and emotions are associated with food, it is not the root or solution to the problem. Food is merely a coping mechanism used by people with eating disorders to help with internal and external complications. Outside of body image issues, food is used to cope with loss, anxiety, stress, etc. The Eating Recovery Center explains, “Restriction, bingeing, purging or over-exercise behaviors usually signify an attempt to control something of substance in the individual’s life.” While eating disorders generally involve food, the main problems are rooted deeper in biological, psychological, and sociocultural aspects, so saying “just eat more” or “just eat less” is ultimately not going to get rid of the eating disorder.
In consequence of my eating disorder, I had to get clinical treatment, which helped me overcome some of my behaviors and issues with food. As I continued to work on my relationship with food on the out-patient level, I soon realized that fixing my eating behaviors would not “cure” my eating disorder - I still had some of the same problems fixed in my brain that caused my initial food restrictions and disorder in the first place. While gaining a healthier relationship and behaviors with food did help my recovery, it wasn’t the solution. I still had to work out the inner problems which were the foundation of my eating disorder.
Additionally, eating disorders are often generalized as only affecting adolescents, especially girls, when in reality, eating disorders are present among all ages, races, and genders. The Eating Recovery Center shares, “While research shows that eating disorders affect significantly more women than men, these illnesses occur in men and boys as well. While males used to represent about 10 percent of individuals with eating disorders, a recent Harvard study found that closer to 25 percent of individuals presenting for eating disorder treatment are male.”
In terms of race, The European Eating Disorders Review states, “Although eating disorders were initially considered to be limited to Western culture, accumulating evidence ties eating disorders more generally to economic development, urbanization, and industrialization across the globe.” The European Eating Disorders Review also suggests that the reason why eating disorders are often only considered present in Western culture is that many racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in eating disorder services, potentially due to underdetection in primary care.
When I first went to an eating disorder treatment center, I expected to see predominantly girls of high school age, but I was surprised to find that there were adults in their thirties, as well as children just entering middle school. There was also an equal amount of males and females amongst the group. This experience disproved my original assumption, and it made me realize that there is an abundance of people who struggle in silence.
Lastly, you don’t decide or choose to have an eating disorder; factors like genetics, family history, and environments are chief contributors. Individuals who are more genetically susceptible to eating disorders could be more easily triggered and sensitive to factors like dieting, bullying, teasing, etc. The Center for Discovery states, “Interpersonal issues, past trauma, low-self esteem, abuse, co-occurring mental health disorders, substance abuse disorders, and unhealthy family and personal relationships all contribute to the environmental and social factors associated with eating disorders.” In addition to the sociocultural origin of eating disorders, recent behavioral genetic findings suggest a substantial genetic influence on these disorders (The Genetics of Eating Disorders).
I didn’t aim to have an eating disorder. I initially just wanted to lose weight and be “healthier”, which quickly turned into an obsession that spiraled out of control. Issues were grounded in my early adolescence, which also heavily influenced my susceptibility to an eating disorder. Even once I gained support and treatment, I couldn’t just ‘snap out of it’. After all of the harmful side effects of my eating disorder, like hair loss, loss of skin pigmentation, lethargy, and depression, believe me, I wished I could get rid of my eating disorder. However, the illness and its ideology were rooted in my mind and body, which is not something that just goes away.
Although I am better educated now in the truth about eating disorders, my past self and many of my peers were victims who fell to eating disorder myths that our society has upheld. These misconceptions, among others, are fixed in the minds of the public and even interfere with some clinical professionals. These myths interfere with identification, diagnosis, and early intervention. People must understand and know the reality of eating disorders so people may better identify and recover from them.
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