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

man in diner refusing to eat
By Lifestance Health 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 large 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.

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Our providers can help.

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 teenaged 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 years old, 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 years show signs of eating disorders. On the other side of the age spectrum, eating disorders appear to be on the rise in children under 12 years of age. In fact, in fewer than 10 years, the rate of hospitalization for eating disorders in this age group rose 119 percent.

Myth: Only Women and Girls Develop Eating Disorders

Truth: Eating Disorders Affect People of All Genders and Sexes

It’s true that cisgender women are 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 overall, and 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 so often associated with nonbinary and androgynous styles in pop culture. Therefore, some people may severely restrict in order to try to fit in with that look.


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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 extremely thin and underweight. This is simply untrue. In reality, only six percent of people with eating disorders are diagnosed as “underweight.”

It’s important to remember that there are many types of eating disorders and that bodies react to these disorders in different ways. Some eating disorders include episodes of binging, with or without purging. Others involve over-exercise, extreme restriction, and more. People with eating disorders are not a monolith, and neither are their bodies.

Furthermore, many people are quite thin without an eating disorder. Telling such people that they have an eating disorder only serves to harm the person in question and people who actually live with eating disorders. The fact of the matter is that only a person’s mental health care team can determine whether or not they have an eating disorder.

Myth: People with Eating Disorders Can’t Recover

Truth: Recovery is Possible

If you or a loved one shows signs of an eating disorder, getting mental health care should be a top priority. Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to high-quality eating disorder treatment is that people think they cannot overcome their disorder.

You can. With help from compassionate mental health care providers, you can learn the skills necessary to recover. If you’re in doubt, please seek out stories from people in recovery. It can be inspiring the see how far people have come. And remember that they were once in a similar headspace, wondering if they could do this.

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. There is also medication available for certain eating disorders, and medication can help treat comorbid disorders like depression.

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