In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness week, I’d like to take this time to raise not only awareness, but also understanding. Eating disorders, as with most forms of mental illness, are heavily misunderstood and stigmatized. My hope is that in writing this, I might clear up any misconceptions or myths. Because everybody knows somebody.
Myth #1- Eating Disorders are age/gender/race specific.
This is an absolutely untrue, although understandable, assumption. We have been conditioned to believe that ED’s are illnesses of young, white women of privilege. Men, women and children of all ages and all colors are susceptible to eating disorders. Unfortunately, this is such a pervasive myth that those who don’t fit the stereotype of young, white and female often face extra shame and discrimination. Men might see admitting to an eating disorder as effeminate because men are not “supposed” to care about body shape. However, numbers don’t lie: in the United States, an estimated 1 million men suffer from eating disorders.
Myth #2- There are only two kinds of eating disorders
Of course, we’ve all heard of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Both are dangerous, deadly disorders. However, just as dangerous and deadly is a lesser-known eating disorder, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). According to the DSM-IV, EDNOS is characterized by the following symptoms:
1. For females, all of the criteria for Anorexia Nervosa are met, except the individual has regular menses.
2. All of the criteria for Anorexia Nervosa are met, despite significant weight loss; the individual’s weight is in the normal range.
3. All of the criteria for Bulimia Nervosa are met, except that the binge eating and inappropriate compensatory mechanisms occur at a frequency of less than twice a week or for a duration of less than three months.
4. The regular use of inappropriate compensatory behavior by an individual of normal body weight after eating small amounts of food.
5. Repeatedly chewing and spitting out, but not swallowing, large amounts of food.
6. Binge Eating Disorder: recurrent episodes of binge eating in the absence of the regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors characteristic of Bulimia Nervosa.
There also exists another kind of eating disorder, which professionals have only recently begun to recognize. Orthorexia Nervosa, a condition coined in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman. It is defined as “an obsession with ‘healthy or righteous eating.’”. Individuals with the condition will obsess about eating only ‘perfect’ foods. The irony of Orthorexia is that often the list of safe foods often leads to the elimination of whole food groups or foods deemed ‘unsafe.’
Myth #3- You can determine if someone has an eating disorder by simply looking at him/her.
Not all individuals with eating disorders are emaciated or visibly ill. These disorders very often cause serious internal damage. A person can appear to be the picture of health, but may have serious electrolyte imbalance brought on by self-induced vomiting and laxative abuse. An individual can be obese and still be malnourished, and there are naturally very thin people who don’t have eating disorders. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and the notion that one can ‘tell by looking’ is not only absurd, it’s dangerous. This myth is so common that I have heard doctors, actual medical professionals, say to patients that they didn’t ‘look’ like they had an eating disorder. Furthermore, many sufferers feel that if they aren’t emaciated, then they aren’t ‘sick’ enough to seek help.
Myth #4- Eating disorders are diets gone awry.
Look, eating disorders are addictions. Diets are choices. Eating disorders are not choices, nor are they lifestyles or diets. Just like nobody chooses to have cancer or diabetes, nobody chooses to have an eating disorder. Therefore, telling someone to ‘just eat’ is a slap in the face. A person may feel extreme self-loathing and anxiety early in the recovery process. And, as with anything, it is important to remember that change takes time. People don’t develop these illnesses overnight, so it places undue pressure on the individual to expect recovery overnight. Most people will relapse at some point in their recovery journey. Some will recover fully, others will partially recover. Some will never recover, and some will unfortunately die from eating disorder related complications.
I can only hope that with a deeper understanding of eating disorders, more people will feel comfortable enough to come forward and seek help. And I also hope that if someone you love is suffering – everybody knows somebody – that you will feel empowered to give them the support they need.
By J.W. Smithee