Myths about Eating Disorders, Is it Just a Woman’s issue?

Austin Armstrong July 31, 2017 44 No Comments

myths about eating disorders

myths about eating disorders

Myths about Eating Disorders!

If I were to ask you what do you think the most fatal mental disorder is, your first thoughts are probably something along the lines of schizophrenia or substance-use disorder. 

Well, you’re in for a shock because the answer is anorexia nervosa. 

In fact, anorexia nervosa has a mortality rate of an estimated 10%. And most of these deaths are due to starvation, metabolic collapse, and suicide which is common amongst women with anorexia than women with any other disorders.


20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life. And for every three females who have an eating disorder, one male has been positively screened for an eating disorder. Among women, lifetime prevalence of all eating disorders is 17.9%, and among men, the lifetime prevalence for any eating disorders is 6.5%. 

You’d think that in this day and age, everyone should know about eating disorders, but in reality, you’d be surprised to learn just how many misconceptions and myths are out there about eating disorders. 

The myth: You can totally tell when someone has an eating disorder. 
The truth: Unlike what media portrays those who suffer from an eating disorder, they are not all stick-thin with an unhealthy pallor to their skin. Those who have eating disorders often come in all shapes and sizes, especially because of the fluctuation of their eating habits–sometimes they’re starving themselves, sometimes they’re bingeing on their favorite junk foods. 
The myth: Eating disorders are a choice. You can easily quit if you wanted to. 
The truth: Much like other diseases and disorders, both mental and physical, eating disorders are not made by choice and it is extremely difficult for an individual to just simply quit. Along with the right therapy and medication, coping with an eating disorder requires meticulous care and tremendous strength.
The myth: Anorexia is the only serious eating disorder that can threaten a person’s life.
The truth: Besides anorexia, there are other eating disorders that have a high mortality rate, therefore anorexia should not be considered the only eating disorder with a mortality rate. In 2009, there was a study that showed the rate of deaths from bulimia as 3.9%, deaths from EDNOS as 5.2% while anorexia has a mortality rate of 4.0%.
The myth: Dieting is just a normal part of life.
The truth: Everything is almost always okay in moderation. Dieting and having eating disorders are completely different in that dieting moderately and healthily is considered safe. Having an eating disorder is neither safe nor healthy. The problem is that a lot of people don’t understand that dieting can lead to extreme behaviors and unhealthy dieting practices which turn in eating disorders. 
The myth: Only someone with high socioeconomic standing can have an eating disorder.
The truth: Eating disorders do not discriminate regardless of a person’s ethnicity, gender, economic standing, or age.
The myth: Men can’t get eating disorders
The truth: As stated before, eating disorders do not discriminate. For certain types of eating disorders, men actually make up nearly 40% of those who are affected. Over the past ten years, the rate at which males have reported being affected by an eating disorder has risen exponentially.  

What Are the Different Disorders?

An eating disorder is characterized by a continuous pattern of eating or eating-related behaviors that is a detriment to an individual’s physical health and/or their psychosocial functioning. The following are the types of eating disorders as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: 

The prominent eating disorders that are often reported in media and public campaigns are:
Anorexia Nervosa – Fearing the gaining of weight so severely and intensely that they restrict their food intake even if they are already at a significantly low weight. The severity of an individual’s case of anorexia is specified based on their BMI. People who are affected by anorexia nervosa often have a distorted perception of weight and shape, constantly evaluating their bodies and obsessively measuring their weight. They depend on their weight as their self-esteem, taking it as a sign of personal failure if they were to gain any weight. 
Bulimia Nervosa – Binge eating followed by periods of time where they try to “purge” the gained weight during their bingeing episode. Purging may include self-induced vomiting, the misuse of laxatives, fasting or excessive exercise. Much like anorexia nervosa, someone with bulimia evaluates their self-esteem based on their body shape and weight. Those with bulimia are often ashamed of their behaviors and try to conduct their “rituals” in secrecy or as discreetly as possible, away from prying eyes. Bulimia occurs in young women at a rate of 1%-5% according to the DSM-V.

Of course, there are also other types of eating disorders that are not in the spotlight as often:
Pica – Eating non-nutritious food or even things that are not even considered food, such as paper, wool, hair, etc., over a period of at least a month in a way that is severe enough to encourage clinical attention.
Rumination Disorder – Constantly regurgitating food for at least a month which may then be re-eaten. Think of a cat hacking up a hairball and then proceeding to rechew it.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder – Showing a lack of interest or avoiding food which then manifests in significant weight loss, a nutritional deficiency, and dependence on feeding instruments or supplements to get the nutrition needed. 
Binge-Eating Disorder – Eating abnormally large quantities of food in a short period of time. Often those who suffer from this disorder eat much faster than usual, and continue to eat until they feel uncomfortably full. They may continue to eat even when they are not feeling physically hungry and will usually eat alone so as to avoid potentially judging eyes and questions. While binge-eating they will feel distress and depressed or guilty after. Unlike bulimia, this disorder does not involve the process of purging afterwards to compensate for the large intake of food. 

Underreporting Because of Bias

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is used by a variety of clinicians, therapists, etc. to help systematically diagnose mental disorders. The most current version of the DSM is DSM-V, with many changes from the previous DSM-IV which includes many changes in the eating disorder section. 

Why is this important you ask? In a study with 1,383 adolescents, the researchers compared the two versions of the DSM, and it was shown that diagnoses for males with eating disorders have increased under the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-V. To put it shortly, males were underdiagnosed while the DSM-IV was around, and it is only now that we realize that rate of eating disorders in males are higher than what was originally thought. For example, under the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-V, rates of bulimia nervosa in 20-year-old males are significantly higher than under the DSM-IV. 

A common myth about Eating Disorders, It’s Not Just a Woman’s Problem!

Eating disorders are not just a “woman’s problem” but unfortunately, it has been regarded that way for years which has underscored the prevalence of eating disorders in males. 

In that same study with 1,383 adolescents, it was shown that the rate of eating disorders in males increased as they aged, beginning with a prevalence of 1.2% at the age of 14 to 2.6% at 17 years old, and 2.9% at 20 years old. Just having numbers other than a flat 0% shows that males do, in fact, suffer from eating disorders–that eating disorders are not just a “woman’s problem.” Even more, mortality rates amongst males with eating disorders are actually higher than they are amongst females. 

While there are no gender differences when it comes to the frequency or the magnitude of the unhealthy eating behaviors, women are more likely to express feelings of distress because of their problematic eating behaviors compared to their male counterparts. Women are also more likely to report their feelings of loss of control. In other words, men are less likely to express their feelings of distress or loss of control because it is not socially accepted nor expected for men to express such feelings. Oftentimes, males are discouraged from voicing their problems and previous attitudes about eating disorders as being a “female issue” may hinder males from reporting their symptoms. 

De-stigmatizing Eating Disorders

What’s worse than having an eating disorder? Having one, and no one believing you.

Unfortunately, for years, people have portrayed eating disorders as a “woman’s problem,” thus underscoring the prevalence of eating disorders in males. 

Imagine having a real, life-threatening disorder, knowing that you need help but being unable to do so because you fear that very few are going to really believe you or being unable to seek help because you fear that everyone will look at you differently if they knew–and not in a good way either. Now, even though eating disorders can affect possibly anyone, people refuse to believe that you can get an eating disorder simply because of your gender. Wouldn’t that just make you feel absolutely helpless to your disorder?

Eating disorders have been stereotyped as a rich, white woman’s problem, but that is simply not true. But nearly all books on eating disorders have a gender bias, focusing only on the female gender and disregarding any other possibilities of males having an eating disorder. 

Thankfully, new research is slowly but surely coming out that focuses on the prevalence of eating disorders amongst males. Paired with de-stigmatization campaigns such as that from the National Eating Disorders Association, those who have eating disorders–male and female– can receive better diagnoses and treatment.


Could you or a loved one have an eating disorder? Learn more about the different types of eating disorders and warning signs that may reveal problematic eating habits.

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