Shifting the Narrative Around Eating Disorders: 4 Myths Busted

Today is the first day of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week so I wanted to take a bit of time to dive into the research around eating disorders and bust some (very popular) myths. I hope you’re ready cause we are divin’ in.

NEDA week.jpg

Myth #1: Eating disorders aren’t that common.
Fact: Let’s talk about how prevalent eating disorders are. For some reason, eating disorders still feel like a taboo topic in mainstream culture although it seems like maybe less so over the past few years (or maybe it’s just because I’m submerged in this work that it feels that way). According to the National Eating Disorder Association, about 30 million people (20 million women and 10 million men) will struggle with a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, meaning about 10% of the US population. However, it’s worth noting that that study only accounts for *clinically significant* eating disorders- meaning that doesn’t count anyone who doesn’t fit the DSM criteria perfectly or who may have subclinical EDs or who may never seek treatment and fly totally under the radar. So the fact is the number of folks who will struggle with disordered eating is likely much larger than 30 million.

Myth #2: People can just “get over” their eating disorder by eating.
Fact: This is painfully inaccurate (and a dangerous way to think about EDs). Eating disorders are rarely about the food- and “just eating” is seldom (if ever) the cure. Eating disorder recovery is a process sometimes taking months but usually taking years. It can involve therapy, nutrition counseling, medication, regular doctor’s visit, psychiatrists, treatment centers, and/or intensive programs. It can involve meal plans, journaling, exercise restriction, relearning body cues, reading books and blog posts and listening to podcasts and trying to make your body feel like home again. Like any other mental illness, it’s not something you can just “get over”. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness. According to the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa, every 62 minutes someone dies as a result of his or her eating disorder. One every hour. That is a staggering number and one we can’t lose sight of when we talk about how serious eating disorders can be.

Myth #3: Eating disorders only affects young, thin, white women.
Fact: Again, this is a dangerous way to view eating disorders. Eating disorders know no boundaries- meaning they affect everyone regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, ability or age. And while yes, it is true that thin, white women take up a lot of space in the online recovery communities (speaking as a thin, white women who engages with the recovery community), that doesn’t mean they are the most affected. It just means that, unfortunately, they are the most likely to get their stories told because we live in a culture that, unfortunately, has a preference for thin, white, conventionally attractive people. In reality, people of color experience eating disorders at a similar, if not increased, rate as white folks. Beyond that, people of color are statistically less likely to be asked about eating behaviors/ED symptoms by their doctor. LGBTQ+ folks are at a greater risk of eating disorders. Although only 5% of the population identifies as gay men, 42% of men who report having an ED identify as gay. Queer folks also have a higher prevalence of lifelong subclinical eating disorders than straight people. 16% of transgender college students report having an eating disorder, which is much higher than the national average. And 13% of women over the age of 50 engage in ED behaviors. The bottom line- eating disorders don’t discriminate. And we should be doing more to change the narrative around eating disorders and making everyone’s stories heard, especially those in marginalized bodies. One of my favorite organizations doing this is Trans Folks Fighting Eating Disorders, which you should absolutely check out and donate to if you feel so inclined.

Myth #4: You have to be in a thin body to have an eating disorder.
Fact: This is by far one of the most common myths I hear circulating and one of the ones that is most important to talk about. This year, NEDA Week’s theme is “Let’s Get Real” with the hopes to shift the conversation to stories we don’t often hear. As I mentioned, there are a lot of ED stories we don’t often hear- like from POC and trans folx and people in the LGBTQ+ community. But one narrative that we hardly ever hear in mainstream media that tends to  make people uncomfortable is the stories of people in larger bodies who have eating disorders. And before you go, “oh of course people in larger bodies can have eating disorders! Binge eating disorder!”, it’s important to recognize that yes, people in larger bodies can have BED (just like people in smaller bodies can) but people in larger bodies can also have restrictive eating disorders, especially given diet culture which tells them over and over again that they have to lose weight. As Deb Burgard so eloquently puts it, we prescribe in fat people the same thing we diagnose as anorexia in thin people. People in larger bodies are almost unequivocally given half thought out diet advice at their doctor’s office- whether there’s a real health concern or not (even if there is a real health concern, weight loss is seldom, if ever, the solution- but that’s a conversation for another time). And it’s easy to let some non-ED informed medical professional’s advice go to far- all the sudden instead of just forming a couple “healthy” habits, you’re down the road of measuring out every morsel of food, torturing yourself at the gym for multiple hours a day, and restricting foods/food groups. And instead of people being worried about the sudden change in weight/behavior, you get praised and rewarded. So on top of having the same symptoms as someone in a smaller body with a restrictive eating disorder, you’re actually getting rewarded for it – which is horrible, confusing, and infuriating all in one neat package. Assuming that eating disorders only happen to thin women is a dangerous assumption and one we should work hard to move away from. If you’re looking for accounts of people who have experienced an eating disorder in a larger body/not the “typical” ED body, I highly recommend starting with Clare @becomingbodypositive, Dani @iamdaniadriana and Ragen Chastain’s work (and see where the interwebs take you from there!)

The biggest takeaway from this (I hope) is that we need to change the narrative around eating disorders. We need to make room for stories that don't fit the "typical" eating disorder narrative. I'm happy to see that NEDA made their theme "Let's Get Real" this year in an effort to make this happen and give us a real look into how eating disorders affect each and every one of us. 

References (if you’re into that kinda thing):
1. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/toolkit/parent-toolkit/statistics
2. http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/
3. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/people-color-and-eating-disorders

Cover photo by Heidi Sandstrom.