Mental Health

Sight Unseen: Myths About Eating Disorders


The psychiatric illness with the highest mortality rate might not be what you think. 

Eating disorders are a group of complex illnesses characterized by abnormal eating patterns that have significant mental and physical health impacts. Misinformation about these conditions can make it difficult to know the signs and ask for help. Understanding eating disorders and debunking their common myths can increase awareness, encourage more people to seek treatment, and ultimately save lives.

Myth: Only girls can have eating disorders.

Truth: A combination of psychological, genetic, and life factors contribute to one’s risk of having an eating disorder, regardless of gender and gender identity. Though they have been historically more common in women, one in three people battling an eating disorder is male, according to NEDA. Men even show higher rates of developing a condition called muscle dysmorphia than women, and one study shows that transgender youths may be at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.

The stigma of eating disorders being a feminine illness is dangerous. Fear of judgment and cultural bias can be a barrier to receiving care. Men are frequently underdiagnosed, misdiagnosed, and less likely to seek treatment than women are.

Myth: you must be thin to have an eating disorder.

Truth: Eating disorders are not weight conditions – they are psychiatric illnesses, and their impact on the body often goes sight unseen. Eating disorders can lead to electrolyte imbalance, kidney failure, heart problems, tooth decay, dehydration, anemia, brittle hair and skin, osteoporosis, and more, none of which is always noticeable from the outside. Body weight and appearance are not always accurate indicators of the severity of these illnesses, and you can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. It’s imperative to be aware of the many different signs, symptoms, and behaviors. 

Myth: Eating disorders are a choice.

Truth: Eating disorders are psychiatric illnesses that patients do not choose to have. 

“They are bio-psycho-social diseases, which means that genetic, biological, environmental, and social elements all play a role,” says NEDA. “Several decades of genetic research show that biological factors are an important influence in who develops an eating disorder.”

With higher mortality rates than any other psychiatric illness, these conditions have serious implications on a person’s life, physically and mentally, that are not a matter of choice. 

Myth: Having an eating disorder simply means not eating.

Truth: There are several types of eating disorders, and all are hallmarked by severe disturbances in eating habits. While restriction of food intake can be a sign, there are other behaviors that can contribute to meeting the criteria, including over-exercising, purging, eating large quantities of food in short periods of time, fasting, and obsessive healthy eating. Eating disorders have significant mental health impacts, and feelings of guilt, shame, distress, and fear surrounding food can accompany these different behaviors. 

Myth: eating disorders are less common in minority populations. 

Truth: Eating disorders don’t discriminate. Though they have previously been associated with young, Caucasian females, eating disorders affect all demographics and races. African American teenagers show higher rates of bulimic symptoms like binging and purging than white teenagers, and despite the prevalence of eating disorders being similar between non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians in the United States, people of color are far less likely to receive treatment, according to NEDA. The myth that eating disorders are less common among minorities makes it more difficult for them to seek help and recover.

The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt provides comprehensive eating disorder treatment for adults, adolescents, and children. Learn more about The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt today.