What are eating disorders? What misconceptions exist?

May 2, 2023

Even though most teens have an idea of what eating disorders are, it may be easier to find misinformation than facts. The stereotypical portrayal of a person with ED—most often, a white, wealthy, thin teenage girl—isn’t indicative of how broad and nuanced the identities of those who struggle can be.

National Eating Disorders Association defines the collected of diagnoses as “serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses.” There are a number of different types of disorders defined by mindsets, behaviors and treatment paths.

Although the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder might sound minor, it’s distinct.

Disordered eating is includes abnormal eating patterns—eating to deal with emotions, for example, or excluding a food group from a diet—but those behaviors do not necessarily mean that that person has a diagnosable eating disorder.

One common misconception is that there are only two eating disorders: anorexia, where people heavily restrict their energy intake, and bulimia, where people binge food and then resort to “inappropriate compensatory measures” which, in most pop culture representations, means vomiting. In reality, there are many others which often slip under the radar. Binge eating disorder is actually the most common eating disorder in the U.S., yet the DSM-5, an edition of the manual that mental health professionals use to help diagnose patients, didn’t give it its own entry until 2013.

Anorexia is sometimes seen as a quieter or more attractive-looking disease than bulimia or binge eating because people who suffer from it may get thinner, and their methods aren’t overly uncomfortable for most people to visualize—they often resort to not eating and overexercising, which can be seen as just more extreme versions of behaviors that people might do anyway.

However, when people with bulimia purge food, or people with binge eating disorder feel like they’re out of control of their eating, people can be less understanding of their symptoms.

I think there can be a lot more shame that’s associated with having bulimia than with having anorexia. The shame perpetuates the eating disorder because the… disorder is some attempt to control uncomfortable, negative feelings.

— Emily Barbee

US Counselor Emily Barbee noted how infrequently people talk about overeating when discussing eating disorders.

“Anorexia can be seen in this very glorified way… but then other eating disorders, like binging… and bulimia, that’s ‘less appealing’ to talk about,” Barbee said. “I think there can be a lot more shame that’s associated with having bulimia than with having anorexia. The shame perpetuates the eating disorder because the… disorder is some attempt to control uncomfortable, negative feelings.”

Stereotypes cause harm to people who suffer from EDs that don’t fit that mold. A 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that one-third of all people with an eating disorder are male. The weight of a person with an eating disorder has been found to be irrelevant to the psychological distress the disease causes. People may develop or suffer from eating disorders at any age, not just adolescence, and a person’s race has no bearing on whether or not they may develop an eating disorder, according to CDC research.

Ultimately, combating misinformation with facts helps kill the shame that EDs thrive on.

People with these disorders aren’t making bad lifestyle choices or are somehow weaker than others; they are living with diseases that have a vested interest in keeping their sufferers quiet. Support and understanding are some of the most valuable things that friends and family can provide.

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