Since eating disorders are the deadliest of mental illnesses and also the most misunderstood, we asked Rebecca Bass-Ching—Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and an expert on disordered eating, trauma, identity, shame and relationship issues—to clear up the myths surrounding the spectrum of eating disorders. In the coming weeks, she will also help you spot signs in your loved ones, and provide resources for those suffering from these illnesses.
Contrary to what we see and hear, eating disorders are not a joke, a character flaw or a means to accomplishing a goal. The men and women I have worked over the last decade have taught me that eating disorders are real, hard to treat (though far from impossible) and devastating to their mind, body and soul. Many walk into my office feeling alone, misunderstood and ashamed that they needed to reach out for help because they could not get unstuck on their own. Eating Disorders despise being seen or talked about. They are like a toxic BFF convincing you they know what is best for you and you do not need anyone else to help you. And then they turn on you and make life miserable.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, those with Anorexia and Bulimia are conservatively estimated between around 10 million people, and there are millions more struggling with Binge Eating Disorder. About four in five people in America spend their waking hours preoccupied with dieting, their body image and the food they eat. These numbers reflect how devastating food and body issues are on keeping people from living the life they are called to live. Below are several myths about eating disorders, and some corresponding meanings (or truths)…
MYTH: Eating Disorders are just a phase for young girls and teenagers.
MEANING: Eating disorders are deadly and affect men and women across the life span. It is so important to convey that eating disorders are not a phase or specific to age or gender. While it has been traditionally thought those struggling eating disorders are Caucasian teens, the truth is that eating disorders do not discriminate by age, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or gender.
MYTH: I only have an eating disorder if I am anorexic or bulimic.
MEANING: Many people minimize their unsafe eating and exercise practices because they do not fit in the narrow definition of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa which delays much needed treatment. In reality, most people fall on the disordered eating spectrum over time (EDNOS—Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). Eating disorders are dynamic illnesses and how they present can vary over time. These variances in no way dilute the seriousness. When an intense preoccupation with food and weight along with dangerous compensatory behaviors are occurring, it is time to get help. When people minimize, deny or rationalize behaviors based on them not fitting a certain criteria, that is a really big flag. Here are some brief explanations of different kinds of eating disorders one can suffer from…
Anorexia. Those who struggle with Anorexia or restricting tendencies are highly anxious. Much of their awake time is focused on their weight and what foods they eat. Unrealistic ideals regarding weight are consuming and extreme actions are taken to lose weight or get rid of unwanted weight regardless what is best for their unique body frame.
Bulimia. Those who struggle with bulimia or binging and purging food often binge secretly and quickly, and then purge through various methods that are unhealthy and unsafe. Many people use purge methods after eating small amount amounts of food triggered by the type of food they ate or how full they feel after they eat.
Binge Eating Disorder. Binge eating involves consuming unusually large amounts of food on a regular basis, usually in secret. This is different than overeating on occasion. This is often a cycle of secrecy and shame with a strong desire to stop, though the compulsion to eat is so strong it often overrides the ability to stop, only perpetuating the negative emotional and physical impact.
Orthorexia. Orthorexia, though not an official clinical diagnosis, defines those with an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy. At a time where we as a culture are taking a serious look at our food supply—specifically, how we eat and what we eat—there are those who are taking this thoughtful and important dialogue to extreme measures. Orthorexia can be just as harmful as clinical eating disorders due extreme anxiety, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, and extreme measures taken in order to get “unclean” or “unhealthy” food out of their body.
MYTH: Eating Disorders are solely a result of culture.
MEANING: While culture has an immense impact on eating disorders being so prevalent, eating disorders are in fact rooted in complex biological, psychological, social and spiritual factors. Genetics play a critical and primary role in the predisposition to eating disorders. Researchers have isolated genetic traits for low self-worth, perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Depression and anxiety, which greatly fuel disordered eating behaviors, are also genetically loaded and exacerbated by culture. Family dynamics, life-stressors and traumas add to the Petri dish creating the perfect storm for an eating disorder to develop. Many individuals battling eating disorders are highly sensitive to what is happening culturally around image, appearance and weight trends. While we all are impacted, they suffer the most in a toxic culture idolizing the thin ideal.
MYTH: Eating Disorders are about willpower and self-control.
MEANING: Absolutely not. This myth is like saying eating disorders are a choice. We can choose to get help, and we can choose to feed the darkness of the eating disorder voice, but if all it took was will power or self-control to address the most deadly of all mental illness, there would be no need for therapy, treatment centers and countless books, conferences and blogs devoted to educating and advocating on this matter.
MYTH: The lower my body fat, the healthier I am.
MEANING: Our culture’s frenetic fear of fat is fueling the obsession with dieting. And diets are like a gateway drug to more serious food and body issues. Our bodies need fat. Our brains are made of fat and when we are under or malnourished, our brains cannot get on our team and help us bench intense or negative emotion—let alone direct our body to work as it needs to. In fact, it can make our anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies worse. An estimated 40 million people in America are chronic dieters. Diets lead to weight cycling, which is thought to be more detrimental than being slightly overweight. It is time to collectively reject culture’s definition of health, beauty and worth and reclaim how we spend our time and money as we seek to manage our pain and fears.
MYTH: Recovery from eating disorders/disordered eating is all about weight stabilization.
MEANING: Weight is not the sole indicator of health. For many in recovery from an eating disorder, weight ranges are a part of several other factors in assessing true health. Many treatment programs are limited by insurance companies’ sole focus on weight as a litmus for the duration of a patient’s treatment. But the real work recovery work begins when people start to dig deep after weight stabilization and learn how to do life without leaning on their eating disorder.
Stay tuned for the next article in the series, which will go into the “why” behind eating disorders…
Image via Modern Hepburn