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Myths and Truths About Eating Disorders

Counsellor and author, Lynn Crilly , knows from personal and professional experience the complexities of eating disorders, here, she dispels a few myths about a subject that has an impact on so many people …  

Despite increasing awareness about eating disorders among the general population and health care professionals, there are still so many misconceptions that surround these serious illnesses, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. These myths are potentially very damaging to everyone affected by an eating disorder (including carers, the public, and professionals), as the consequence of them means that eating disorders remain woefully misunderstood by many.

Below is a summary of the familiar ‘facts’ which are often quoted in relation to anorexia. They are, as we have discovered, myths which prevent us from really understanding the illness.

MYTH: If an anorexic gains weight, they are recovering.

TRUTH: Anorexia (and, indeed, any other eating disorder) is a mental illness, like depression. While there are physical symptoms, it is the mind-based issues which need to be addressed. Remember: if you treat the mind, the mind will treat the body.

MYTH: Anorexia is ultimately about ‘control’.

TRUTH: A lot of sufferers refer to ‘control’ because that is how their condition appears to them. However, from an outside perspective, they have lost control totally.

MYTH: Anorexics have always experienced a significant and traumatic incident.

TRUTH: Some anorexia arises in response to trauma, some does not. This varies from patient to patient. A significant or dramatic past incident is by no means a certainty.

MYTH: Anorexics see a ‘fat’ person when they look in the mirror.

TRUTH: Often, anorexics are aware of how thin they have become, they simply do not consider it to be thin enough. (This myth arises from the fact that, often, anorexics pick and focus on one perceived ‘flaw’, such as their stomach or thighs, and obsess upon it, rather than seeing their body as a whole.)

MYTH: Anorexics always try to conceal their weight loss.

TRUTH: Some anorexics will wear baggy clothes in a bid to hide their weight loss. Others will try to draw attention to their slimmer frame. Again, this varies from patient to patient.

MYTH: Anorexics only eat lettuce leaves.

TRUTH: An anorexic will restrict their food intake. However, they might allow themselves a very small amount of chocolate each day. The food stuff they choose is irrelevant; it is the restriction which is important.

MYTH: Anorexia only affects teenage girls.

TRUTH: Anorexia and other eating disorders affect both genders and all age ranges, races and social backgrounds.

MYTH: Anorexics are classic over-achievers and/or perfectionists.

TRUTH: Just as anorexics come from all walks of life, they also have a variety of different personalities.

There are also many myths and misconceptions surrounding bulimia - it is a deeply misunderstood condition. Below is a summary of the most common myths, and the facts:

MYTH: Bulimics are underweight.

TRUTH: Bulimics are often slightly overweight, or what is considered a ‘normal’ weight. It is even less possible to diagnose bulimia by weighing the patient than it is for anorexia.

MYTH: Bulimia and anorexia are interchangeable.

TRUTH: Bulimia and anorexia are two distinct illnesses. While they may borrow specific behaviours from one another, they manifest themselves in totally different ways, physically and psychologically.

MYTH: Bulimia is ultimately about losing weight.

TRUTH: Bulimics might be labouring under the false idea that their condition will lead to weight loss, but this is also accompanied by feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame and self-loathing. It is these emotions which ultimately fuel the disease.

MYTH: Bulimia is less dangerous than anorexia.

TRUTH: While anorexia statistically has a higher mortality rate than bulimia, bulimia can be deadly (most often bulimia-related deaths are caused by a heart attack, resulting from the strain vomiting places on the heart). There are also a myriad of serious physical and psychological symptoms, as listed in my last article.

MYTH: Bulimia is about vanity.

TRUTH: Bulimia is akin to self-harm. It develops as a coping mechanism for difficult emotions and is fuelled by low self-esteem. While a bulimic might act confident, it is simply that: an act.

MYTH: There is a certain type of person who is more likely to suffer from bulimia.

TRUTH: Bulimia affects people of all ages, races, walks of life and of both genders.

The myths stated above can prevent individuals, families and professionals from identifying an eating disorder and, in turn, seeking appropriate treatment. I am a great believer that education and awareness are the strongest remedies for misinformation. By promoting a better understanding of eating disorders throughout the general public and the healthcare professionals, it can help support early diagnosis, effective treatment and a life time of recovery for the sufferers.

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