The 14th annual National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is now underway, lasting February 23 to March 1, 2014. The theme for this year’s Awareness Week is “I Didn’t Know.” With that theme in mind, we at the Susan B. Krevoy Eating Disorders Program decided to contribute by debunking five common myths and sharing five important facts about eating disorders.

Let’s start with the myths.

Myth #1: You can tell that someone has an eating disorder by looking at them.

That an individual is struggling with an eating disorder is not readily apparent. A person may have a very unhealthy relationship with food and still you might not visibly be able to tell. Furthermore, eating disorders affect different people in different ways, and they are not limited to certain body shapes and sizes. Outwardly, someone can look like they are healthy, but hidden medical complications associated with eating disorders could still be present. The National Institute of Mental Health describes common medical complications related to eating disorders here.

Myth #2: Eating disorders are about food.

Just as you cannot tell by someone’s body whether they have an eating disorder or not, the real issues behind these challenges are also not necessarily what they seem. At the Susan B. Krevoy Eating Disorder Program, our philosophy is that eating disorders often represent underlying unmet needs. They can become a way to seize direction/purpose in one’s life, a way to forge an identity, something to turn to in times of distress. Though appearing on the surface to be solely about food, in this way an eating disorder becomes a response to a larger question in one’s life. Unfortunately, eating disorders leave sufferers with little energy or time to explore other answers, making it even harder for them to approach the underlying problem in a more effective, healthier way.

Myth #3: Only women have eating disorders.

While it is true that women are statistically more likely than men to develop eating disorders, many men too struggle to maintain healthy relationships to food, body image, etc. Since men tend to be the minority of sufferers, they may feel further alienated and misunderstood, making it challenging for them to seek the help they need.

Myth #4: Someone can choose to stop having an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are not simply a matter of choice. They can become a trap, and escaping that trap often requires a lot of help. It is common for the treatment of an eating disorder to require the assistance of multiple professionals — a medical doctor, a psychologist, a dietician, and a psychiatrist — to support and guide someone out of the vicious cycle they have become stuck in. Additionally, recent research has revealed just how powerful the relationship between the brain and food can be: Neurotransmitters such as dopamine are released when we eat certain foods; this creates strong feelings of pleasure, thereby “rewarding” unhealthy behaviors and encouraging us to get caught in unhealthy cycles. Disordered eating patterns are less a choice and more a result of this intrinsic reward system, which our brains are very susceptible to becoming accustomed to. Learn more about the highly involved brain–food connection here.

Myth #5: Someone or something is to blame when a person has an eating disorder.

The causes of eating disorders are not known. This can be challenging for people with eating disorders and for their families when seeking treatment. It may feel like there should be a clear answer, a simple way to find a resolution, and that someone should be blamed and take responsibility for the eating disorder. It’s never quite so cut and dried. We do know that family dynamics related to food, perfection, competition, and an emphasis on physical appearances can play a role. The culture and society we live in, with its unrealistic standards of beauty and lack of acceptance of various body shapes and sizes, also plays a role. Eating disorders are also likely to have a genetic aspect to them since they tend to run in families. Still, no research to date has confirmed a singular cause for eating disorders. Recovery is not about blame; it is about determining how a person can move forward in their life and give themselves what they truly need, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, without needing to rely on an eating disorder instead of people to help them.

Now that we’ve tried to correct some very persistent myths, let’s discuss five facts about eating disorders that you might not know.

Fact #1:

Eating disorders are being discovered in children as young as eight, and eating disorders overall among children are on the rise. CNN.com recently ran a piece about this troubling trend.

Fact #2:

35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20%–25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. Read about this and other facts related to dieting at the National Eating Disorder Association’s website.

Fact #3:

For those struggling with them, eating disorders represent just one aspect of their mental health, and it is in fact very common for additional issues like depression and anxiety to be present at the same time. Further information on anxiety and eating disorders can be found at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’swebsite.

Fact #4:

Eating disorders are present across all ethnic groups. Despite this truth, a stereotype persists that eating disorders are a problem only for white, upper–middle class young women, a false assumption so widespread that it has led to a lack of research of eating disorders in other ethnic/cultural groups. Over the past decade this has begun to change, as evidenced by this 2005 article in The New York Times showing how eating disorders are not just confined to one group.

Fact #5:

Treatment rates for eating disorders are not as high as they could be. In research studies in which individuals report having eating disorders, the percentage who also report seeking treatment is far lower. This research article discusses actual rates of treatment for people with eating disorders.

It’s not enough to simply learn facts about eating disorders. There are simply too many cultural myths abounding about this topic, and dispelling them is equally important. The vast amount of misinformation out there only serves to make it more difficult for individuals suffering from eating disorders to obtain the help they need.

In honor of Eating Disorder Awareness Week and 2014’s “I Didn’t Know” theme, we hope the information presented here proves helpful to the many people out there who need assistance. Please help us spread the word. And if you are struggling with an eating disorder in your life, please know that you are not alone. There is help waiting for you.

Vanessa Pawlowski, Psy.D.

Individual and group therapist for Susan B Krevoy Eating Disorder Program

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