5 myths about eating disorders
The media often portrays particular narratives in terms of who gets eating disorders, what causes them, and whether recovery is possible, but generally these narratives do not reflect the full spectrum of eating disorders or their recovery trajectories.
What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a serious mental health condition with considerable mental and physical health consequences.
Eating disorders can affect individuals of all genders, age, race, ethnicity, body shape and weight, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. They disrupt personal and family functioning and are associated with significant societal costs.
There are currently seven types of eating disorders recognised in diagnostic systems:
- Anorexia Nervosa
- Bulimia Nervosa
- Binge Eating Disorder
- Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)
- Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
- Rumination Disorder
There is an eighth category for Unspecified Feeding of Eating Disorder.
The most common eating disorders
Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder are the three most widely known types. However, the type known as OSFED is actually the most common. It includes variations of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder that do not fit their specific diagnostic criteria.
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5 common eating disorder myths
Significant stigma, misconceptions and misunderstandings surround eating disorders, so let’s dispel a few of the common ones…
1. 'Eating orders only happen to teenagers'. Not true.
Eating disorders typically develop during adolescence and early adulthood, but they can develop at any age. Young people (aged 15-25), particularly young females, appear most at risk. However, there are cases of eating disorders developing in children as young as seven and in adults in the 40s-60s.
2. 'Fewer people suffer from eating disorders nowadays'. Not true.
Studies show the prevalence of eating disorders appears to have actually increased over recent decades. BEAT, the UK’s leading Eating Disorder charity, estimates that 1.25 million people in the UK are currently suffering from a diagnosable eating disorder, although many suggest that current figures underestimate the true figure.
3. 'You must have a low BMI to have an eating disorder'. Not true.
In fact, you do not have to be severely underweight to have an eating disorder. Weight loss is characteristic of anorexia nervosa, but individuals may be a normal weight or overweight. Weight and body mass index (BMI) can vary substantially across the different types of eating disorders.
4. 'Eating disorders only happen to women'. Not true.
Eating disorders do not just affect women. Up to a quarter of those affected are thought to be male, although men may be less likely to be diagnosed and less likely to seek and access treatment, so this figure is likely an underestimate.
Men and women appear to present symptoms slightly differently. For example, in men body image concerns might focus on muscularity, whereas in women, body image concerns may focus on weight loss.
5. 'Eating disorders are incurable'. Not true.
Recovery from an eating disorder IS possible! Whilst recovery can be a challenging and often protracted journey, “full recovery from an eating disorder is not only possible, but indeed probable” (Schaumberg et al., 2017, p.20).
Current estimates suggest that approximately 70% of individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder are recovered ten years after their eating disorder onset. Recovery estimates vary, depending on how recovery is defined and how long the individual is followed up on or reports back from treatment.
Growing evidence suggests that early detection of eating disorders, including prompt recognition of one’s difficulties, and early intervention, including prompt access to treatment, may improve prognosis for a full recovery.
Effective treatment for an eating disorder typically includes psychological treatment, nutritional support, and at times, medication.
Where to get help for eating disorders
Currently only a minority of individuals who meet diagnostic criteria actually seek treatment. Unfortunately the majority of people with eating disorders remain untreated.
If you are wondering whether you, or someone you know, may be struggling with an eating disorder, you or they can get help. Remember, it’s important to try and seek help as early as you can.
In the UK, to access NHS support, the first step is to book an appointment with your GP. S hare your concerns with them as they are best placed to support and provide access to specialist Eating Disorder support.
BEAT has an excellent leaflet to support referral to a specialist - download it via this link.
Alternatively, you may seek private specialist support, such as a therapist from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, or consult a nutritionist or dietician. Make sure to seek support from someone who specialises in eating difficulties.
Useful links for help for eating disorders
NHS.UK – Eating Disorders Overview
- Website: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/behaviours/eating-disorders/overview/
- Information on the different types of eating disorders, signs and symptoms and how to access support and treatment.
- Website: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/
- BEAT is the UK’s ED charity that seeks to end the pain and suffering caused by eating disorders through direct support, raising awareness, and working for positive change.
- Here you can find information and resources, a helpline, online support groups, email support, web chat, social media links.
Mental health charities: Young Minds or Mind
- Young Minds Website: https://youngminds.org.uk/find-help/feelings-and-symptoms/eating-problems/
- Mind Website: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/eating-problems/about-eating-problems/
FREED for Eating Disorders
- First Episode Rapid Early Intervention for Eating Disorders (FREED)
- Website: https://freedfromed.co.uk/
- A service for 16 to 25-year-olds who have had an eating disorder for three years or less. Here you will find information and resources for young people, parents, carers and professionals.
By Hannah Webb, Research Assistant in Eating Disorders and Trainee Clinical Psychologist.
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American Psychiatric Association, (2013). Feeding and Eating Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
Beat, (2020). (https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/)
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, (2017). Resource impact report: Eating disorders: recognition and treatment (NG69). (https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng69/resources/eating-disorders-recognition-and-treatment-pdf-1837582159813)
NHS England, (2020). Overview – Eating Disorders. (https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/behaviours/eating-disorders/overview/)
Santomauro, D. F., Melen, S., Mitchison, D., Vos, T., Whiteford, H., & Ferrari, A. J. (2021). The hidden burden of eating disorders: an extension of estimates from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. The Lancet Psychiatry, 8(4), 320-328.
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Schmidt, U., Adan, R., Böhm, I., Campbell, I. C., Dingemans, A., Ehrlich, S., ... & Zipfel, S. (2016). Eating disorders: the big issue. The Lancet Psychiatry, 3(4), 313-315.
Strother, E., Lemberg, R., Stanford, S. C., & Turberville, D. (2012). Eating disorders in men: underdiagnosed, undertreated, and misunderstood. Eating disorders, 20(5), 346-355.
Treasure, J., Stein, D., & Maguire, S. (2015). Has the time come for a staging model to map the course of eating disorders from high risk to severe enduring illness? An examination of the evidence. Early intervention in psychiatry, 9(3), 173-184