There are many myths that prevail about eating disorders and who gets them. Today you will meet somebody with an eating disorder (ED). But here’s the catch: you won’t know who that is.
When you think of someone with an eating disorder, what do you think? Young, white, self-absorbed, athletic, lonely? It’s okay if you do, but it’s time to dispel some myths about eating disorders, who they affect, and why. Once you discard these myths, you can have better conversations and better help those who suffer from an eating disorder. And if you have an eating disorder yourself, you can accelerate your recovery.
5 Eating Disorder Myths
Myth 1: Eating Disorders Only Affect Young People
Your neighbor, your co-worker, your friend, another family member, all have something in common: any one of them could have an eating disorder (ED). Sometimes there are obvious signs, other times there are not.
Eating disorders don’t only affect young female athletes, a young college student who doesn’t think she’s pretty enough, or a cyclist trying to keep his weight down.
I don’t fit the profile of someone with an eating disorder. I developed my first ED in my early 20’s when I wanted to “get healthy.” In reality, I was fixing something that didn’t need to be fixed. I was already healthy up until that point. I didn’t need intervention. But I wanted control over my life.
I ended up chewing and spitting, purging, binging, and fasting for the next decade. I was a 30-year-old male, physical therapist, who had a good life, but also had an ED in the background. Nobody knew and I don’t think anyone ever suspected.
Food is a substance, it’s a chemical. It can alter our mental state, it can change our mood, it can become a form of escape. For that reason, it can affect anybody, not just young people who play sports. People in their 50s and 60s and beyond have eating disorders. MANY people have one, but they don’t say anything. They don’t get treatment due to shame, guilt, financial issues, or because they don’t think anybody can help them.
Myth 2: Eating Disorders Only Affect Females
The stereotypical victim of an ED is a young, female, college student who wants to lose weight, goes a on a crash diet, and then inevitably develop an ED. Or maybe the female athlete who’s in a weight-dependent sport (running, gymnastics). While eating disorders certainly do strike young female athletes, they also affect male athletes. And they can also affect males who aren’t athletes.
In my case, I developed an ED at the same time I was training for triathlons, but my ED didn’t stop after I stopped competing. In fact, they only stopped years after I did my last triathlon.
I worked with a therapist 11 years ago, before my ED exacerbated. Once it exacerbated, I was too ashamed to admit it or to tell anybody.
I didn’t think anyone could help me, I didn’t want others to know, and I preferred to suffer in silence.
I was always convinced that recovery was “right around the corner.”
Why do men develop ED’s? I will cite several reasons: first, the pressure to look a certain way. Men need to have big arms, a big chest, and a small waist to be attractive. Second, the availability of high-calorie, palatable food at all times. This makes it convenient, cheap, and easy to become a binge eater. And third, diet culture that says it’s okay to go on a crash diet, and then the praise and adulation we give to those who “transform” themselves in a short period of time.
That leads me to my next point…
Myth 3: Dieting isn’t Harmful
Depending on the statistic that you cite, as many as one in two Americans are on a diet. Think about that. Half of all adults are on a diet! It seems Americans have a high appetite for dieting.
Dieting is perfectly accepted in our society, and yet I cite it as the number one cause of ED’s. Dieting is usually done in an unhealthy way. It can lead to an unhealthy obsession and fixation on food; the removal of essential nutrients and entire food groups; and an unhealthy relationship with food. In some cases, it leads to an ED…
Crash diets, extreme diets, and very restrictive diets are not the way to do it lose weight. Unfortunately, these weight loss tactics aren’t shunned or derided. In many ways, they are encouraged when we celebrate “Biggest Losers” and “Most Shocking Weight Loss Stories of the Year.” We also do it at the micro level when we congratulate someone we know and say, “you look great!”
In my case, I was eating a typical diet until I was about 21-years-old. Then I decided to remove certain food groups… I bought a food scale and started to weigh everything. I ate VERY restrictively. Then my brain rebelled, and I spent the next 10 years recovering.
Dieting is a health hazard that can have physical and psychological effects. It’s time as a culture to start condemning it as the hazard that it is.
Myth 4: You Can Blame Your Childhood For Your Eating Disorder
Let’s face it, all of us have emotional baggage from childhood. We had peers, teachers, and parents who said something to us that hurt us emotionally. Whether they meant to do harm doesn’t matter; what matters is how we interpreted their words.
Maybe our mother told us we wouldn’t be pretty, worthy, or valuable if we were fat. Maybe we were exposed to too much modern media which tell us to look a certain way. Or maybe we had self-esteem and confidence issues as children due to abuse or neglect.
Everyone’s case is different, and childhood can provide clues to the origins of ED’s. But it’s important not to live in the past.
Recovery is not an option, it’s a responsibility.
What happened to you isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility to fix it. Blaming childhood or past experiences is a cop-out. You can only recover from an ED when you believe that you are capable of recovering and that no one can recover for you.
Myth 5: It Takes a Long Time to Recover
The great news about ED’s is that it doesn’t take years to recover. In fact, I believe that recovery can start today if you take the right action, get the right resources, and make a commitment. I’m not saying that recovery is easy! If it were, I wouldn’t be writing this article or coaching people on how to recover.
Recovery can be challenging. The brain doesn’t like to change. ED’s, despite all the damage they cause, can become part of your identify and can provide a false sense of security and comfort. My recovery took 10 years, but I could have recovered much sooner.
It took me that long to recovery because I had disabling beliefs: “I couldn’t recover in a certain location; everything had to be perfect in my life; my brain was permanently damaged; my recovery could wait; my ED was permanent and there was nothing I could do about it; recovery wasn’t worth the cost.”None of these were true! But they kept me stuck for 10 years.
Challenge the Eating Disorder Myths
In order to recover from an ED, you have to challenge myths, errant beliefs, and any belief you have that is causing you not to take action today. Once you dispel these myths, your recovery will be much easier and faster.
Disagree immensely. Scientific evidence shows us that recovery DOES in fact take a long time- YEARS. The neural pathways in your brain cannot change until you maintain set point weight AND are behavior free for AT LEAST six month to a year. Then you start the hardest mental work.
Also, 30 is young relatively, and telling people that developing an ED in their 20s doesn’t make them young sufferers is false.
Additionally, making people responsible for the trauma they incurred as children is horrific and offensive. It is not their “responsibility” to heal. They are each on their own journey and some may never heal through no fault of their own, but from the relative severity of their trauma and it’s effects.