Common misconceptions about eating disorders

There are lots of myths and misconceptions surrounding eating disorders. It’s important to draw attention to them in order to raise awareness of the realities of the illness, and ensure that people are able to access the specialist help that they need and deserve.

Here, we will share some common misconceptions and set the record straight:

Eating disorders are about food

Despite how they can seem, eating disorders are not just about food and they are not a diet “gone wrong”. Rather, behaviours around food are often symptoms of more complex, underlying causes. Another way to think about it is that an eating disorder is a red flag that something isn’t quite right in someone’s life and the individual is struggling to cope.

As eating disorders are not about food, we can see someone’s behaviour with food as an indicator for how they may be behaving in other areas of their life too. For instance, someone who is very restrictive with food may be equally restrictive in their friendships and they may not allow themselves to truly connect to others. Someone who binges and then restricts their food to compensate might have the same patterns elsewhere in life, for instance, being “all or nothing” when it comes to friendships or school work.

The act of feeding ourselves is an important basic need for life, so when this gets complicated we know that there are important things going on underneath the surface.

There’s only one way to have an eating disorder

There is no one way to have an eating disorder. What’s more, any one of any age, race, gender, sexuality or background could be at risk.

Often when people think about eating disorders, they imagine someone who is thin and most likely female. But eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Whilst many people with eating disorders, particularly anorexia, may lose weight with their illness, it is actually more common for people with eating disorders to maintain a “normal” weight.

What’s important to note is that you cannot tell how unwell someone is by looking at them. The way that someone experiences their eating disorder will be unique to who they are and their individual story.

Eating disorders are a choice

Eating disorders are not a choice. There’s no one single cause for why someone may develop an eating disorder, but is often deemed to be a combination of psychological, sociocultural and biological factors.

They can be understood as a “maladaptive” coping mechanism, meaning, a coping mechanism that develops to help us cope, but to the detriment of our mental and physical health.

Eating disorders tend to emerge when we are feeling overwhelmed by life or experiencing a transitional phase (e.g. lots of change that’s difficult to cope with). When we don’t have the tools in our toolbox to process these experiences, we can look outside of ourselves to cope.

Eating disorders are attention-seeking or about vanity

Eating disorders are not about attention. Whilst symptoms can include a preoccupation with body weight, size and appearance, there are often more complex things happening under the surface that prompts someone to focus so much on these things.

In fact, people with eating disorders can feel a lot of shame associated with their behaviours and can go to great lengths to hide and conceal their illness. Because of this, it can take a long time for someone with an eating disorder to admit that they are struggling and to ask for help.

Recovery from an eating disorder isn’t possible

Recovery is possible! People often refer to recovery as a “journey” because there can be ups and downs and the route is not always linear.

Just how there’s no “one way” to have an eating disorder, there’s also no “one way” to be recovered as it totally depends upon the individual.

That said, to recover from an eating disorder we often need the support of specialists and our support network (such as friends and family). Research has shown that the sooner someone reaches out for help, the quicker their recovery, so it is important to reach out for support as soon as you have concerns.


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