Key Takeaways Key Takeaways
  • Eating disorders affect about 9 percent of the global population, with nearly 29 million cases in the United States, making them alarmingly common and dangerous.

  • Eating disorders don’t discriminate by age or gender; they affect people of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations, challenging common misconceptions.

  • One can’t diagnose an eating disorder by appearance alone, as these conditions manifest in people of various body types and behaviors, emphasizing the importance of avoiding snap judgments.

It’s Time to Let Go of These Eating Disorder Myths

This content has been updated from previous article on February 12, 2021.

Eating Disorders affect an astonishing nine percent of people worldwide, or about 28.8 million people in the United States. That means that everyone probably knows somebody who lives with an Eating Disorder. These disorders are not only unnervingly common, but they are also dangerous.

On average, someone in the United States dies from an eating disorder every 52 minutes. That makes Eating Disorders the second-deadliest mental health condition, second only to opioid abuse.

Yet, as pervasive and dangerous as eating disorders are, they do not play a significant role in our public discourse. People often shy away from talking about eating disorders for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, this leaves room for myths and misunderstandings to take hold.

It’s time to break that cycle by busting some of the most common myths about eating disorders.

Myth: Only Teenagers Live with Eating Disorders

Truth: Eating Disorders Affect All Ages

When many people picture someone with an eating disorder, they see a thin teenage girl. While some people with eating disorders may fit this description, many do not. People from all walks of life live with eating disorders, including people of all genders, ages, and races.

Eating disorders can affect people as young as five, people in the golden years of their lives, and everyone in between. In fact, more than 13 percent of women over the age of 50 show signs of eating disorders. On the other side of the age spectrum, eating disorders appear to rise in children under 12. In fact, in fewer than 10 years, the hospitalization rate for eating disorders in this age group rose by 119 percent.

Myth: Only Women and Girls Develop Eating Disorders

Truth: Eating Disorders Affect People of All Genders and Sexes

Cisgender women are indeed more likely to develop eating disorders than cisgender men. However, eating disorders truly affect people across the gender and sex spectrums. Approximately 10 million men and boys in the United States live with an eating disorder at any given time.

Because people believe eating disorders only affect women, many men don’t get the treatment they need. This could be why the mortality rate for eating disorders in men is especially high.

Transgender people and nonbinary people experience eating disorders in unique ways. First, eating disorders are even more common in the LGBTQ+ community, specifically in transgender communities. For example, transgender college students are four times more likely to live with an eating disorder than their cisgender peers.

Often, gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia drive eating disorders in transgender people. As many as 32 percent of transgender people with eating disorders say they use disordered eating to change their bodies without hormones.

Although research on eating disorders in nonbinary people is scarce, some experts believe that nonbinary people may be at high risk of eating disorders. This could be because thinness is often associated with nonbinary and androgynous styles in pop culture. Therefore, some people may be severely restricted to try to fit in with that look.

Myth: You Can Tell If Someone Has an Eating Disorder by Looking at Them

Truth: Eating Disorders Affect People of All Shapes and Sizes

Perhaps due to pop culture portrayals of eating disorders, most people believe that someone only has an eating disorder if they are unusually skinny or underweight. This is simply untrue. Only six percent of people with eating disorders are diagnosed as “underweight.”

It’s important to remember that there are many eating disorders and that our bodies react to them in different ways. Some eating disorders include episodes of binge eating with or without purging. Others involve over-exercise, extreme restriction, and more.

Engaging in behaviors such as limiting food intake, abusing laxatives and diet pills, compulsive exercising, binge eating, and other obsessive or compulsive actions related to food and exercise don’t always result in being underweight. Individuals with eating disorders can have a range of body weights, including being underweight, overweight, or falling anywhere in between.

Furthermore, many people can be quite thin without having an eating disorder. Telling such people that they have an eating disorder only harms the person in question and those who actually live with eating disorders. Assuming someone has an Eating Disorder based on their appearance can contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. This stigma can deter individuals from seeking help or disclosing their struggles, worsening their condition. The fact is that only a person’s mental health care team can evaluate whether or not they have an eating disorder.

Myth: People with Eating Disorders Can’t Recover

Truth: Recovery is Possible

Recovery from an eating disorder is possible and incredibly resilient, even in the face of high relapse rates.

General rates of Eating Disorder relapse are incredibly high within the first year of recovery, with continued risk for up to two years. Relapse can impact an individual who is in recovery from any eating disorder, but the risk of relapse is exceptionally high in individuals who are recovering from Anorexia Nervosa.

While it’s true that eating disorders can be challenging to overcome completely, many individuals do achieve lasting recovery through a combination of professional treatment, a robust support system, and determination. The journey may involve setbacks, but these setbacks do not define the ultimate success of recovery. Instead, they serve as opportunities for learning and growth. By continuously working on underlying psychological issues, adopting healthier coping mechanisms, and maintaining a support network, individuals can break free from the grips of an eating disorder and regain a fulfilling, nourishing life. The resilience and strength demonstrated by those in recovery emphasize that, with the right resources and unwavering determination, a life free from the constraints of an eating disorder is indeed attainable.

Treatment for eating disorders looks different for everyone, but it almost always involves therapy. For some people, inpatient programs may be the right first step. For others, intensive outpatient programs or individual therapy may be better. Medication is also available for certain Eating Disorders, which can help treat comorbid disorders like Depression.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults.

Reviewed By

Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S
Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

Nicholette is a faculty member at John Carroll University’s Clinical Counseling program, and she is also the host of the LifeStance podcast, Convos from the Couch.